Last month, incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts narrowly defeated Tea Party challenger Dr. Milton Wolf in the Republican primary race for Senate. Arguably, Wolf’s most successful campaign tactic was a broad criticism of Roberts’ prolonged tenure in Congress that hinged on exposing Roberts’ limited residency in Kansas.
Because Roberts has served as a senator for the state of Kansas since 1997, many students may not have knowledge of his past. Roberts graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Kansas State University in 1958. In the following years, Roberts served in the Marine Corps as a journalist, and eventually as an administrative assistant for Sen. Frank Carlson and Congressman Keith Sebelius. In 1981, Roberts was elected to the House of Representatives. He served 16 years as a representative before running for Senate.
After a combined total of 47 years in Congress, including Roberts’ time as a congressional staffer, is it time for a change in who represents the state of Kansas? While questions of Roberts’ residency are relevant and worthy of consideration, I am personally not convinced they independently warrant rejection of this candidate on Election Day.
In February, an article by Jonathan Martin of the New York Times surfaced. Roberts admitted in an interview that he does not have his own home in Kansas. Rather, he rents out a home in Dodge City from several supporters, while he and his wife live in a home they own in northern Virginia. This article launched an investigation into Roberts’ residency that sparked a flurry of political commentary. A USA Today story based on Senate financial records said Roberts spent a meager 97 days in the state between July 2011 and August 2013 – that translates to 13 percent of Roberts’ time in those two years. That same article contrasts Roberts’ time allocation with Sen. Jerry Moran, who spent roughly 475 days in Kansas during the same time period.
An early estimate in February by a Public Policy Polling survey suggested Roberts had a significant 49 percent to 23 percent lead over Wolf. However, as campaigns for the primary election began to swing into motion over the summer, it became clear that Pat Roberts had a challenger for the Republican nominee position. On July 3, during an interview on Kansas City’s KCMO radio, Roberts was asked about his residency and responded, “every time I get an opponent – I mean, every time I get a chance, I’m home.” Wolf took advantage of this gaffe and repeatedly called for new leadership while criticizing Roberts for losing touch with Kansans. According to Politico campaign reporter Tarini Parti on July 30, “Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is still ahead, but he has a real race on his hands against a Tea Party challenger the establishment had largely written off months ago.”
Although Wolf was not able to overcome Roberts, largely due to a Facebook X-ray scandal, many political analysts were surprised by the effectiveness of his campaign against such a longtime incumbent.
The dispute over Roberts’ residency could have greater implications for the general election. Democratic nominee Chad Taylor’s withdrawal from the race Wednesday significantly raises the possibility that Independent candidate Greg Orman could pose a real threat to Roberts because Taylor is no longer splitting the votes between them. Most recent polls show Orman sustaining a 10 point lead over Roberts as a result. It is also likely Orman will adapt Wolf’s strategy of contesting Roberts’ connection with Kansans through the residency dispute.
Roberts needs to assure Kansans that he is still in tune with local happenings and concerned about our well-being in order to beat Orman. Kansas needs a senator that understands our unique situation and represents the will of our state. The best way for Roberts to demonstrate understanding of this is via a televised debate against his challengers.
However, if Roberts’ response to Wolf’s repetitive appeals for a debate is any indication of his willingness to participate, then such a scenario might not be realistic. Roberts needs to find a way to appear both competent and sympathetic to ongoing events in Kansas, in order to reassure concerned voters of his commitment to our state. Roberts’ listening tour, with which he intends to visit all 105 counties, is a good step in this direction.