Ugly Senate race could end today


  • Voters in Kansas head to the polls to pick their Republican nominee
  • Incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts faces tea party-backed challenger Milton Wolf
  • The Kansas race has been largely defined by personal attacks on both sides
  • Tea party will get another chance to knock off an establishment candidate in Tennessee

Washington (CNN) — Tuesday’s Senate primary in Kansas could end another ugly showdown that pits a tea party-backed challenger against an establishment Republican incumbent.

The race between Sen. Pat Roberts and challenger Milton Wolf, a second cousin of President Barack Obama, has seen controversies over residency and Facebook photos, and a rare streetside confrontation.

The Kansas vote and Thursday’s nominating contest in Tennessee, where incumbent Lamar Alexander faces a bunch of conservative challengers, are the last two chances — although remote — for a tea party-backed candidate to prevail in Senate primaries.

Pat Roberts

Pat Roberts

Obama second cousin Milton Wolf.

Obama second cousin Milton Wolf.

Wolf’s campaign for months has tried to portray Roberts as more in tune with Washington than Kansas, pointing to reports from earlier this year that the three-term senator listed his voting address at the home of two longtime political supporters who rent a room to him.

Dueling controversies

The Wolf campaign ran numerous ads attacking Roberts over his residency.

At the same time, the Roberts’ campaign over the past couple of months has gone up with TV ads reminding voters that Wolf, a radiologist, posted X-ray images of mortal injuries and made light of them and the victims. Wolf was later forced to admit he made “insensitive” comments.

Wolf has painted himself as a conservative activist with the guts to stand up to the GOP establishment.

As a doctor, he frequently campaigned against the Affordable Care Act and proposed his own plan that he calls “PatientCare.”

He enjoyed the backing and the support of some major national tea party groups, such as the Tea Party Patriots and the Tea Party Express, and some influential anti-establishment organizations, like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project.

Roberts enjoyed the support of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, which is chaired by fellow Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran.

Showdown on the street

In the primary campaign’s closing weeks, Wolf highlighted what he said was Robert’s refusal to debate him. Last week, Wolf changed his travel plans at the last minute to confront Roberts as he met with business leaders in Emporia, Kansas.

“You told Kansans you would give them your word and you would give them a debate,” Wolf said to Roberts.

“You have said it multiple times in multiple places. You tell us that you are tough and you’re tested and trusted. And I want you to keep your word on that, I want you to debate. I think Kansans deserve it.”

“Milton, Milton, Milton, Milton,” Roberts said dismissively. “This is not the time. We have a regularly-scheduled event, a listening tour event. This is not the time.”

“When would be the time, senator, because I’ll go anywhere you’d like. You’ve given your word to debate. Let’s just debate,” Wolf continued as Roberts walked off.

Roberts’ campaign was asked why he wouldn’t debate.

“The question’s not about debating. The question is about an immature candidate with a desperate campaign, an unethical candidate pulling stunts like he did today. When you’re 20 points down, these are the kind of desperate stunts you pull,” spokesman Sean Fitzpatrick said.

State of the race

Roberts is seen as the heavy favorite in the nomination battle with a large double-digit lead in the most recent poll. But that survey also indicated Wolf making gains. A couple of other minor candidates are also on the ballot.

The primary in Kansas comes six weeks after longtime Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi narrowly won re-nomination, edging out tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a runoff. McDaniel officially contested the results of the June primary runoff on Monday after revealing alleged evidence of voter fraud and irregularities.

While the Kansas contest has made some headlines, it pales in comparison to the Mississippi showdown, which played out in the national political spotlight.

“I think Kansas got shoved aside at the beginning of the cycle because Kentucky and Mississippi were taking up a majority of the time, energy, and resources,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor for the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, a leading campaign handicapper.

“Roberts hasn’t run a perfect campaign. But Wolf has failed to consolidate and excite the anti-establishment groups that are usually necessary to knock off an incumbent,” Gonzales added.

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