Bob Sigman — Tea party embrace by Roberts is difficult to watch

03/18/2014 2:28 PM

03/18/2014 2:30 PM

The New York Times expose of U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts’ residency status is hardly a shock to Kansans. And even if there were concerns about where he lives, they have not been reflected in election returns. The Kansas Republican has been elected and re-elected to Congress, both the House and Senate, since 1980.

Don’t get me wrong. I prefer that our representatives have a heavy presence back home. That is the way a representative democracy is supposed to work.

As of this week, Roberts’ office said he had visited 88 of Kansas’ 105 counties, many of them more than once, in the last two years. Whether that is enough is up to the voters.

Of far more interest than residency is Roberts’ Olympic-style dive into the arms of the tea party.

For most of his political career, Roberts has been considered a traditional Kansas Republican: To the right of center, but not far enough to be ranked an ultraconservative ideologue.

His protective stance on farm issues, his constituent services and his tilt to the right have won him support, if not admiration.

Roberts abruptly shed his more moderate persuasion heading into this year’s election. It is obvious that Roberts feared he would be a target of the far right, just as several of his Senate colleagues were before they were taken out by tea party candidates in recent years.

His politically driven efforts to quickly establish tea party credentials — and to save his seat — show the depth of his desperation. It has been painful to watch.

Roberts gratuitously advocated for the resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, a fellow Kansan with whom he had been on friendly terms over time. The slam undercut his integrity, not hers.

Worse, in terms of his responsibility to Kansas, he voted against legislation that provided key funding for the nearly $1 billion National Bio and Agro-defense Facility under development in Manhattan. This vote degraded his longtime successful efforts to land the huge federal research project in Kansas. The facility is highly important in protecting the nation against agricultural-related diseases.

Roberts has cast many other misguided tea party votes, but not enough to ward off a challenge in the Republican primary in August. Milton Wolf, a Leawood radiologist and a tea party-backed candidate, is off and running.

Capitalizing on the residency issue, Wolf contends that Roberts is out of touch with Kansans. He dismisses him as a Washington insider.

Recently,Roberts stepped up his campaign with television and radio ads. One attack radio commercial, based on a story in a Topeka newspaper, criticizes Wolf for making inappropriate postings on his Facebook page. According to the story, Wolf posted X-ray images of people with medical injuries and engaged in what some professionals consider to be questionable comments about the images. He has apologized.

As the campaign unfolds, Kansas voters face a round of deep soul searching.

Do they want to choose Wolf, a committed tea partier, or Roberts, who could well correct his unseemly swerve to the right?

If he is nominated and re-elected to a fourth term, Roberts should have scant obligation to the tea party. And, going into a new term at age 78, Roberts is not likely to run again.

Politically speaking, he could be free as a bird — like a Bob Dole-model Republican who could focus on making government work, not obstructing it.

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