As conservatives reel from a bruising loss in Mississippi, they are looking to the primary in Kansas to knock off an incumbent and salve their wounds.
But on Aug. 5, when GOP Sen. Pat Roberts faces Milton Wolf in a primary, they will likely realize they are not in Mississippi anymore.
Roberts has been in office for several decades — much like Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who survived a runoff with state Sen. Chris McDaniel last month by a narrow margin but galvanized conservatives to make it a close contest. The Kansan has been criticized for spending more time in Washington than in his home state — another accusation McDaniel leveled at Cochran.
But unlike McDaniel, Wolf’s bark might be stronger than his bite.
Wolf trailed Roberts by 20 points in the most recent automated poll, conducted July 17-22. He has been dogged by criticism that he posted X-rays of seriously wounded or deceased patients on Facebook, along with unsavory comments. Last week, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported Wolf was under formal investigation by the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts because of the posts.
While McDaniel could point to a legislative record, and had a base of supporters from his time in the state Senate, Kansas Republicans criticized Wolf for not paying his Republican Party dues before running statewide.
“He just showed up and expected to be there and expected people to line up behind his campaign,” said Kansas Republican consultant Scott Paradise, who is unaffiliated in the race. “And it has not happened.”
Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative Kansan backing Roberts, echoed a similar concern.
“I was very active in state politics, and never heard of him until he had some news for being the president’s cousin,” Huelskamp said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “And that’s what a lot of folks say: ‘Why didn’t you run for the state House? Why didn’t you run for a legislative seat? Why didn’t you run for a congressional seat?’ But he wanted to run for the Senate, and he’s working very hard.”
While Cochran waffled over whether to seek another term, Roberts worked quickly to gather conservative support in the state from officials such as Huelskamp and Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Both Republicans were once mentioned as possible challengers to Roberts.
“When you have two people with sort of mint conservative credentials like that standing by Roberts, it’s very difficult for anybody to pin on Roberts like he’s not a conservative,” said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas GOP. The state party does not endorse in primaries.
Wolf is also at a significant financial disadvantage. He raised just $342,000 in the second quarter, less than half of the $858,000 Roberts raised. As of June 30, he had just $280,000 in cash on hand, while Roberts had just more than $2 million.
An insurgent candidate might be able to overcome that deficit with the help of outside groups like Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Express, and Tea Party Patriots — all of which have endorsed Wolf. Senate Conservatives Action, the super PAC associated with the Senate Conservatives Fund, reported a $423,000 expenditure on media buys attacking Roberts last week — its first foray for Wolf.
Although it was the SCF’s largest expenditure in Kansas this cycle, it might be too late. Wolf, who was largely unknown at the start of the race, probably could have used it sooner.
One culprit? The Mississippi runoff kept conservative groups focused on McDaniel for longer than they planned.
“We had every intention of being involved a little sooner, and then we had the three weeks of election overtime in Mississippi,” said Kevin Broughton, national communications director of the Tea Party Patriot’s Citizen Fund. “Our whole team was there.”
Outside spending in Kansas has been on a much smaller scale compared to the Mississippi race. Groups spent more than $5 million on the Mississippi race and so far, outside spending has yet to crack seven figures in Kansas.
Some Republicans speculate Wolf’s real target is not Roberts but rather the state’s other senator — Jerry Moran, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. If Wolf has a strong showing against Roberts in the primary, he could try again against Moran in 2016.
Talk of that possibility began last month, the day after the Mississippi GOP runoff, when Wolf personally attacked Moran on the Mark Levin Show.
“If you’re curious who the party boss is who’s making all these boneheaded decisions, not just in Kansas but in Mississippi and around the country, his name is Sen. Jerry Moran,” Wolf told the talk radio host. “I’m holding Jerry Moran personally responsible for the Mississippi betrayal.”
But Moran could be tougher to topple than Roberts. He was elected to the Senate in 2010 after 14 years in the House, so it’s more difficult to charge him with over-staying his welcome in Congress.
What’s more, local Republicans said Moran has done a good job of tending to Kansas during his tenure at the committee, making an effort to visit every single county in the state at least once a year.
“Most Senate committee chairs would be focusing on fundraising, while I think Jerry would rather be at a town hall in Kansas talking to people,” said one Kansas Republican.
The race is rated a Safe Republican contest by the the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.