It’s a story straight out of 2010: A conservative candidate is challenging a long-time Republican senator in the upcoming Senate primary.
Dr. Milton Wolf, a distant cousin of President Barack Obama, announced last night that he would challenge Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), a three-term senator who had previously served eight terms in the House.
“Now Pat Roberts wants a fourth decade in Congress,” Wolf said in his announcement speech. “I’m sorry, no one should be in Congress for four decades. No one. Not even Moses himself should be in Congress for four decades.”
Wolf, like Liz Cheney in her Wyoming bid against Senator Mike Enzi, is pushing the argument that it is not enough to have a GOP senator who votes correctly most of the time: Instead, Republican voters must demand politicians who will actively and publicly promote their beliefs. “We need more senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee,” Wolf declared, depicting himself as a similar figure.
Wolf isn’t the first to make this argument: Cruz himself made it in his own primary against the Texas establishment’s favorite, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Few doubted that Dewhurst would vote as a conservative on most issues. But since
Cruz took office, he has proven his point: It is inconceivable that Dewhurst would have spent his August recess pushing to tie the defunding of Obamacare to the continuing resolution, or would have stirred up the kind of ire that has caused Cruz to encounter questions such as “What’s it’s like to be the most hated man in America?” as Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked him earlier this week.
Wolf has already proven his bona fides as an outspoken conservative: He has made appearances on Fox News, among other outlets, and is a columnist and blogger. In his announcement, he railed against the same targets that Sarah Palin and other top conservative activists have taken on: He attacked “career politicians” and poked fun at “high-priced Washington consultants,” saying, “I thank the consultants for their advice, but I’m still the same guy I was growing up in Lyons [Kan.]: I don’t beat around the bush; I don’t ask for A to get to B, and I don’t apologize for telling the truth.”
Roberts’s record in Congress is fairly conservative, according to the relevant scorecards: He has an 89 percent rating from Heritage Action (the average for a Republican senator is 67 percent), and the American Conservative Union gave him a 72 percent rating in 2012. The fiscally oriented Club for Growth, however, ranked Roberts in 36th place in 2012, putting him behind such senators as John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.).
Roberts came under fire from Wolf in his announcement for endorsing and voting to confirm former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services. Wolf also criticized Roberts for voting for the 2012 fiscal-cliff tax deal, which preserved the Bush tax cuts for the middle class but ended them for the more affluent, and for his eleven votes to hike the debt ceiling. “When Democrats are in control and they need Republican votes to pass their big-government agenda, they know they can count on Pat Roberts,” Wolf declared.
But Wolf has an uphill climb. “He’d have to raise probably at least $4 million to be viable,” says one well-connected Kansas Republican. “I don’t think he can raise that money.” Besides, the GOP source went on, “Pat Roberts is probably the most popular elected official in the state.”
Nor does Roberts have any intention of ignoring Wolf’s challenge. “Pat Roberts has always said he’s going to run like he’s 20 points behind,” says David Kensinger, a longtime Kansas Republican strategist, who served as campaign manager for Roberts in his 2008 senate bid. “He’s pretty legendary for his 105-county tours across the state, he has tremendous energy, and he is very good on the stump.”
What Wolf needs is a significant financial boost from one or more outside groups in order to get traction. So far, none of them have committed to supporting him. “We’re watching the race,” says Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller.
The Madison Project, which endorsed Ted Cruz early on and is now actively supporting Senator Mitch McConnell’s challenger, Matt Bevin, is interested, but not committed. The group “met with Dr. Wolf several months ago, and we were very impressed by his knowledge of the issues and passion for committed conservatism,” says its policy director, Daniel Horowitz. “We’ll be keeping a close eye on this race to see if the grassroots conservatives in the state mobilize behind Dr. Wolf.”
Similarly, the Senate Conservatives Fund (founded by Jim DeMint), which has been especially active in the movement to defund Obamacare, is keeping an eye on Wolf’s candidacy. “We haven’t made any decisions about this race, but we’re glad Republican voters in Kansas will have a choice,” says Matt Hoskins, SCF executive director. “We will be watching the race closely to see if Milton Wolf is someone we can endorse.”
Now, Wolf is looking forward. Addressing Senators Cruz, Lee, and Paul in his announcement, he made this pledge: “Your Kansas reinforcements are on the way!”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.