Incumbent Pat Roberts turns back tea party challenger Milton Wolf in close Kansas primary

08/05/2014 10:25 PM

08/05/2014 11:31 PM

Kansas Republicans nominated Pat Roberts for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate — a victory claimed after the toughest race of his decadeslong political career.

Incomplete returns showed that the Kansas GOP picked Roberts, 78, over insurgent tea party challenger Milton Wolf, a 43-year-old Leawood radiologist.

With more 84 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, Roberts had 48 percent and Wolf 41 percent.

Roberts’ victory marked a nervous win for the Republican Party’s mainstream, even as it showed the power of a tea party candidate to make an incumbent tack hard to the right.

The race might have gone a different direction had it not been for votes drawn by two political unknowns crowding the primary — and had Wolf not been caught in a blunder possible only in the era of social media.

Deeply conservative D.J. Smith drew 6 percent, and the somewhat libertarian Alvin Zahnter pulled 5 percent. Had their anti-establishment support gone Wolf’s way, he might have pulled off the upset.

In the end, the night offered some relief, and perhaps a career capstone, for Roberts. As Wolf was fond of saying during the campaign: As a Capitol Hill aide, then a member of the House and finally in the Senate, Roberts has been in Washington for nearly half a century.

“We knew when we started nearly a year ago it would not be easy,” Roberts told some 200 supporters at a Republican rally at the Overland Park Marriott. “And it hasn’t been.

“My posse did not flinch,” he continued. “Even though there were times when their candidate — me — stepped on our message.”

Wolf conceded the race about 10:35 p.m., ending a quest that gave the Roberts camp reason to worry and that prompted the incumbent to fill the airwaves with commercials blistering his opponent.

“Our battle for America is just beginning,” Wolf told disappointed supporters in Johnson County on Tuesday night. “The majority of Kansas knows we have to make serious changes in Washington. … We’re just getting warmed up.”

Roberts must now turn his attention to two general election opponents.

Democrat Chad Taylor, the Shawnee County prosecutor, was nominated by his party Tuesday. He was leading Patrick Wiesner in a surprisingly close primary with 53 percent of the vote. Party regulars saw virtually no campaign from Wiesner.

The close call would appear to raise questions about the already uphill challenge of a Democrat unseating an incumbent in increasingly conservative and Republican Kansas.

The fall campaign is also widely expected to include an independent challenger: Greg Orman, a Johnson County businessman. He’ll qualify for the ballot if the Kansas secretary of state certifies 5,000 petition signatures Orman has submitted.

Roberts’ victory Tuesday was not a big surprise. The Kansas political veteran raised far more money than Wolf and enjoyed the support of virtually all of the state’s GOP establishment. In recent years, Roberts moved his own voting record closer to tea party sympathies in Kansas, further restricting Wolf’s chances with conservative primary voters.

Yet the closeness of the final tally suggests some of Wolf’s criticisms stuck. He traveled Kansas relentlessly this year, arguing the senior senator was too old and out of touch to represent the state effectively.

Wolf made much of Roberts’ residence — Virginia. In February, Roberts told The New York Times that he leased his house in Dodge City to a tenant while claiming the home of a friend as his voting address.

Roberts was repeatedly forced to defend that claim during the campaign. He did not always succeed.

Yet Wolf’s campaign also faltered early in the year, when The Topeka Capital-Journal revealed the radiologist had posted patient X-rays on Facebook, sometimes with captions many felt were insensitive.

Did that sink his chance at an upset?

“I’ll let the pundits try to sort that out,” Wolf said Tuesday night.

Wolf’s insurgent candidacy seemed never to recover from the Facebook story, and the ads Roberts used to pound on the issue.

Outside tea party groups largely stayed away from the race, costing Wolf crucial third-party TV ads in the campaign’s closing hours.

Wolf’s campaign also may have suffered from tea party fatigue among Kansas Republican voters.

Many in the GOP believed tea party challengers cost the party winnable seats in the 2012 elections. With the exception of Eric Cantor’s surprise loss to a tea party insurgent in Virginia, conservative challenges to incumbent Republicans have largely fallen short this year.

Now the attention turns to a general election where political oddsmakers consider Roberts a favorite to hold his seat. While Taylor was unavailable for comment Tuesday night, Orman was eager to start the general election.

“Kansans (will have) a clear choice between more of the tired, partisan nonsense that’s led us to where we are now, or a fresh, common-sense, independent leader committed to reforming Congress,” Orman said Tuesday night.

Still, Orman’s candidacy could be a complicating factor for both major party candidates. He’s raised significantly more money than Taylor and has already run TV ads in markets across the state.

But pre-primary polling shows Orman pulling votes from Roberts as well as Taylor.

While the polling suggests an interesting dash to the November finish line, both of Roberts’ challengers face a substantial hurdle: history.

Kansans have elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in every race since the late 1930s, the longest GOP winning streak in the nation.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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