Bleeding Kansas Again

Our favorite right-wing radio station has lately been airing an attack ad against Dr. Milton Wolf, and it sounds as if the battle for the soul of the Republican party has once again come to Kansas.
Even if you’re reading this far outside the Sunflower State you might have already heard of Wolf, the Kansas City-area radiologist who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts for their party’s nomination, if only because he is also a second cousin of President Barack Obama. He’s from the Kansas side of the family and is as severe a critic of Obama as you’re likely to find even among the most outspoken corners of the Republican party here on the prairie, so his long shot race against an entrenched incumbent has piqued some bemused curiosity from the national press. That Roberts apparently sees a need to dip into his campaign chest and reservoir of political capital with a response to Wolf’s numerous withering and widely-aired advertisements, however, suggests that something more significant than an extended family squabble is afoot.
The determination of the more conservative and combative Republican voters to rid their party of its more moderate and accommodating elements has figured in several important contests the past few election cycles, and been widely reported by a press eager to gloat over the occasionally catastrophic results, but when a politician such as Roberts finds himself among the plausible targets it is a new development. Roberts is not only as entrenched an incumbent as sits in Congress, he has also carefully cultivated a reputation for both conservatism and combativeness, so if he is vulnerable to a primary challenge it is hard to imagine anyone in the party who is not. The critique of Roberts’ career is also telling, and seems a template for the attempted reconstruction of the party.
So far as we can understand the rationale for Wolf’s candidacy, Roberts’ entrenched incumbency is the problem. Kansans and other small state denizens have traditionally regarded incumbency as an argument for yet another re-election, given the power of seniority to deliver pork in packages inordinate to the relatively puny size of our congressional delegation, but in an age of $17 trillion debt there is an understandable lack of enthusiasm among conservatives for pork and a reflexive suspicion of anyone that has been around Washington for the extended period of time it has been piling up. Roberts’ time there has been undeniably extended, starting when he arrived after brief stints in the Marines and journalism as an aide to Sen. Frank Carlson in 1967 and stretching through eight terms as the vast First District’s Representative before winning a Senate seat of his own in 1996, so at this point he can hardly claim to be an outsider. The charge has compounded by the revelation that Roberts no longer has a Kansas residence of his own, which is the sort of thing that Kansans quite resent, as gleefully reported by The New York Times, and we suspect that is the reason that Roberts is now taking to the airwaves with his own indignant charge that Wolf’s campaign contributions are coming from out of the state.
What’s missing from Wolf’s advertisements, however, are any substantive policy disagreements with Roberts. Although Roberts once presented himself as a pragmatically conservative politician in the style of Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum and his mentor Carlson, back when the debt didn’t seem so worrisome and that sort of deal-making proficiency still struck most Kansans as good for business, but in recent years his voting record has been carefully in line with the more conservative mood of his constituents. Wolf’s pitch makes much of Roberts’ vote to confirm fellow Kansan and former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, but that was before Obamacare was passed and since then Roberts has repeatedly demanded her resignation. Roberts was complicit in much of the profligacy of the Bush years, but Bush won landslide majorities of the Kansas vote in both campaigns and since the even greater profligacy of the Obama years Roberts has become reliably stingy. The media onslaught against the partial government shutdown and the Republicans’ intermittent debt ceiling squabbles have not deterred Roberts from voting with the Tea Party caucus on every occasion, and his public pronouncements on the controversies have been filled with all the crusty invective a Kansas conservative might hope for.
Perhaps Roberts has tacked so far to the right only because he held a licked thumb to the winds and noted which way they were blowing, but we’re not sure that such political savviness should be punished rather than put to good use. Given a choice between two candidates who would vote the same way in every instance, there is no compelling argument for the political neophyte with no chance at an important committee position rather than the shrewd veteran whose seniority ensures influence and whose cynicism insures ideological compliance. We share Wolf’s frustration with the establishment, and remain open to his arguments, but he hasn’t yet convinced us that we’d be better served with him as our Senator. Nor has he assuaged a nagging concern that his challenge could be a problem for the party.
Should Wolf win the primary we’ll happily vote for him over anyone the state’s Democrats might put up, we’d just as happily pull the lever for Roberts, and no one here seems at all concerned that a majority of Kansans will do the same, so the Wolf insurgency is unlikely in any case to affect the party’s chances of re-taking the Senate from the strangling grip of the Democrats. A similar restiveness in less reliably Republican states could unseat an experienced politician with a chance of winning and nominating an inexperienced amateur who will lose a winnable election with an another amateurish outburst, however, and the party can ill-afford such zeal. As much as we appreciate to the effort to build a more conservative Republican party, and wish it well in those states where the more conservative candidate can actually win, we would prefer that it reconfigure itself into something effective as well as ideologically pure. What does it profit a party to save it soul if it loses the world?

— Bud Norman

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