You can’t help but wonder if Kansas’ Pat Roberts is the next Dick Lugar.
Upset this week in Indiana’s GOP Senate primary by a tea party conservative, Lugar is 80. Roberts, who seeks re-election two years from now, is 76.
Both are Washington fixtures. Until this week, both hardly broke a sweat in winning re-election. One ranking tagged Lugar as the 37th most conservative senator last year, while Roberts was ranked 29th.
Those similarities got the tongues of Kansas pundits wagging this week, especially in the wake of Lugar’s blowout loss Tuesday night to Richard Mourdock.
Lugar this year opposed a move to prohibit earmarks. So did Roberts. Mourdock used that to rile up conservatives.
Another similarity: Roberts opposed the $787 billion stimulus in 2009. So did Lugar, though that one vote wasn’t enough to stave off a challenge from the right.
Like Lugar, Roberts moved to Washington a long time ago, maintaining a Dodge City address as little more than show.
One of Mourdock’s closing ads in the race against Lugar began with this zinger: “When Dick Lugar moved to Washington, he left behind more than his house. He left behind his conservative Hoosier values.”
But it may be a stretch to say the same thing about Roberts. Any notion that Roberts and Lugar are carbon copies of each other is false. The differences are stark enough that Roberts could avoid facing the same fierce challenge from the right.
Lugar was criticized for losing touch with his constituents. Roberts is in the midst of another grueling 105-county Kansas tour. Lugar backed the auto bailout. Roberts opposed it. The bank bailout? Roberts was a no, Lugar a yes. Roberts also said no to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees — Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — while Lugar backed them with votes that Mourdock roundly criticized in TV ads as supporting Obama’s “liberal Supreme Court choices.”
There’s something else here worth considering. Lugar let the race come to him. Mourdock chewed on him for failing to live in the state for 35 years and for staying in hotels when he did return to Indiana. Lugar waited until way late to go after Mourdock.
“The story is play offense, not defense,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who faced his own tough primary challenger in 2010, told Politico. “And it ain’t beanbag.”
Roberts wouldn’t make the same mistake, especially if David Kensinger, Gov. Sam Brownback’s former chief of staff, runs his campaign again. Roberts is a competitor, a Marine with a tough guy persona who has won his share of political brawls.
Is Pat Roberts at risk? Yes. Any longtime pol in this topsy-turvy era is. But high-risk? No. More so than most, Roberts recognized the rise of the right years ago. Initially he fought it. Then he adjusted.
Assuming he runs again, the smart money says he wins.