Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, aided by national Republican forces, beat back a tea party challenger Tuesday — effectively thwarting conservatives’ last, best hope to topple an incumbent GOP senator this year.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, according to The Associated Press, Roberts led Milton Wolf, 48 percent to 41 percent.
Roberts’ margin was narrower than recent polls that had showed him crushing Wolf, a radiologist who has attacked the incumbent from the right. But assuming Lamar Alexander prevails on Thursday in Tennessee, this will be the first cycle since 2008 when no incumbent Republican senator lost renomination.
In a post-election speech, Roberts alluded to the bruising campaign and urged Republicans to refrain from “fratricide” in future elections.
“The truth is, Republicans in Kansas and nationally cannot afford the kind of intra-party fratricide we have seen recently,” he said, according to prepared remarks. “Friends, we cannot afford to waste scarce resources and energy tearing ourselves apart. We cannot afford a fractured party. The stakes are too high.”
Wolf spent the campaign portraying Roberts, 78, as a creature of Washington, frequently questioning whether he truly resided in the state or merely parachuted in to fight for reelection. Roberts, the son of an Eisenhower-era Republican National Committee chair, was longtime Hill aide before winning election to Congress in 1980.
Wolf, a second cousin (once removed) of President Barack Obama, presented himself as a hardline conservative and built his bid around an effort to undo Obamacare. His challenge to Roberts was his first run for office, and he won the backing of some conservative groups that have tried, but so far failed, to oust Senate incumbents.
“Sometimes … the best candidate doesn’t win,” said Jenny Beth Martin, chairman of Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, which funded a late-campaign TV ad attacking Roberts.
Roberts parried the attacks and trained the spotlight on an embarrassing professional scandal that stunted Wolf’s momentum earlier this year. Wolf was discovered to have posted patient X-rays on Facebook, sometimes accompanied by morbid jokes. The controversy was featured in Roberts’ advertising and press releases in the final months of the campaign.
Still, top Republicans in Washington were nervous as public and private polls showed the race tightening, and they feared a paltry turnout that would hurt their incumbent. The Senate Conservatives Fund’s super PAC arm was putting hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and trumpeting a poll that showed a single-digit race. Residency attacks on Roberts showed potency, and there was some nervousness in establishment quarters that the X-ray story might have dropped too soon.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is chaired by Roberts’ Kansas colleague, Sen. Jerry Moran, who some far-right activists have threatened with a 2016 primary challenge — which made it even more personal.
“Senator Roberts has served as a diligent check on Democrats’ push for ever expansive government and is a true conservative voice for our state,” Moran said in a statement celebrating Roberts’ win.
The NRSC sent its regional political director into Kansas for the final three weeks before the primary; she focused on the early vote and worked with the campaign to stay on message for the final weeks.
The party made a strategic decision to focus on turning out supporters in Wolf’s home base. Wolf lives and works in Johnson County, the suburbs of Kansas City. He needed a healthy margin there to offset Roberts’ strength in the sprawling First District on the western side of the state, which he represented in the House for 16 years.
The NRSC sent six workers to the Kansas City area for the final 10 days, and they knocked on more than 10,000 in Johnson County alone, a party official said. A Washington phone bank set up by the NRSC also made more than 40,000 phone calls in the final three weeks.