Choice between two conservatives in Senate primary frustrates moderate Kansas Republicans

07/07/2014 7:56 PM

07/07/2014 7:56 PM

Moderate Kansas Republicans survey the U.S. Senate primary like vegetarians at a barbecue.

Plenty of red-meat conservatism. Little else.

Dick Bond, the onetime president of the Kansas Senate from Johnson County, considers three-term incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts and finds him too far right. Roberts’ most serious challenger, tea party favorite Milton Wolf? Much the same.

“I don’t even have a horse to ride,” Bond said.

People who long represented the mainstream of the Kansas GOP find themselves in a party shifted decidedly to their right. That leaves them feeling abandoned, particularly in the Senate primary, which features two candidates who are striving to stake out the most conservative positions they can.

“Moderate Republicans just don’t have a whole lot of places to go,” said Dennis Jones, a former Kansas Republican Party chairman.

Those moderates’ frustration might prompt them to sit out the Aug. 5 voting, putting the contest in the hands of the most committed and most conservative in an increasingly conservative state and party.

“I’ll be doing something that I am not pleased with,” said former Republican state Rep. Nancy Brown, a moderate. “I simply do not (plan to) vote for either one.”

Two other GOP candidates, former mail carrier Alvin Zahnter of Russell and homemaker D.J. Smith of Osawatomie, aren’t well known and are considered long shots.

Many moderates — they comprise about a third of GOP voters — said they expect Roberts of Dodge City to again win the GOP nomination. They said some members in their fold will wind up backing him as the best of the bunch. Roberts is well-known, they say, and knows the ways of Washington. Conservatives, meanwhile, say they are pleased with Roberts’ service on the Senate agriculture committee and his frequent criticisms of President Barack Obama.

A SurveyUSA poll released June 25 showed that Roberts led Wolf 56 to 23 percent. Zahnter and Smith split 8 percent of the vote, while undecided voters accounted for the remaining 12 percent.

While the poll suggests that Roberts may well waltz to the nomination on the wings of conservative support, it also suggested that the man first elected to the U.S. House in 1980 is not the choice of 43 percent of Kansas Republicans.

Moderate voters said they were more comfortable with Roberts earlier in his Senate career when he was seen as more willing to support their causes. In 2013, the nonpartisan National Journal ranked Roberts as the eighth-most conservative senator. In 2005, he came in as the 38th-most conservative.

History suggests that Roberts need not fear a Democrat. Kansas, a heavily Republican state, hasn’t elected one to the U.S. Senate since the 1930s, the longest streak in the nation. In 2008, Roberts defeated his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery, 60 to 36 percent.

A challenge from a conservative Republican is a different story. Republican insiders say Roberts shifted over the years to stave off exactly the type of tea-party challenge that Wolf represents.

Roberts has witnessed other longtime GOP incumbents go down in flames to conservative challengers. One was 18-year Sen. Robert Bennett, who lost in Utah’s 2010 GOP convention to Mike Lee. Two years later, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana lost a bid for a seventh term in the Republican primary to Richard Mourdock.

Some might argue that Roberts has played it smart politically. Bond doesn’t buy it.

“He’s been a longtime friend, and obviously he has totally changed,” Bond said. “He drank some Kool-Aid or something.”

Said former state Sen. Tim Owens, a moderate Republican from Overland Park: “My hope is that his latest approach has been Pat Roberts playing politics. I’m sorry to see that.”

Leroy Towns, Roberts’ top campaign aide, dismissed the concerns. “Pat will have broad support,” he said in a statement.

Wolf spokesman Ben Hartman said Republicans of all stripes can back the radiologist. “Stopping the growth in our debt and fighting the out of control overreach of Barack Obama’s intrusive federal government are principles on which all Republicans agree,” he wrote in an email.

Wolf contends in TV ads and on the stump that Roberts has been in Washington too long. It is an issue that Mourdock used to unseat Lugar in Indiana.

“The choice that Republicans have in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate is simple,” Hartman said. “Milton Wolf is a doctor, not a politician, and Pat Roberts has been in Washington for 47 years.”

Roberts’ conservatism has been on full display. He opposed the $787 billion economic stimulus act in 2009, the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act and a bill aimed at giving children of illegal immigrants a path to legal status.

Two of Roberts’ actions caused considerable angst among moderates. One was his call last October for Kathleen Sebelius, then the secretary of Health and Human Services, to resign for “gross incompetence” in connection with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. The demand came just days after Wolf entered the race. Roberts and Sebelius had been friends, and Roberts spent 12 years as the top aide to 1st District U.S. Rep. Keith Sebelius, the father-in-law of the woman who went on to become governor and HHS secretary.

“I know that made me uncomfortable,” Jones said. “I know the relationship between Pat and the Sebelius family.”

The other action was Roberts’ opposition to a personal plea in 2012 from his mentor, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, to back a United Nations treaty on the rights of people with disabilities. Dole said the treaty would require nothing of Americans but would spur help for disabled people around the globe. Even with Dole making a dramatic appearance on the floor of the Senate in a wheelchair, Roberts voted no.

“He’s not the Pat Roberts that I knew,” said former state Rep. Ginger Barr, an Auburn Republican.

Towns said Roberts always had reservations about the U.N. treaty. He said that out of a respect for Dole, Roberts studied the issue but wound up agreeing with “the thousands of Kansans who voiced their opposition to the U.N. role.

“Senator Roberts informed Senator Dole of his position and believes that Senator Dole, of all people, understands he voted his conscience,” Towns said.

Barr said she probably will back Roberts in the primary because she’s unimpressed with Wolf. But she may pick a different horse in the November general election. One possibility is independent candidate Greg Orman of Olathe. Democrats Chad Taylor and Patrick Wiesner are also in the race.

Orman “talks more my philosophy,” Barr said. “Come the general (election), Pat Roberts would really have to work hard for my vote.”

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

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