Kansas Republicans: Pat Roberts Knows Kansas

By John Celock

Kansas Republicans are fighting back at a story in The New York Times that claimed that U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) was out of touch with state issues and did not live full time in the state.

The Times story – published online Friday afternoon – noted that Roberts rents out a home he owns in Dodge City and rents a room from a campaign donor in another Dodge City residence and said that he is reconnecting with a politically changing Kansas. Neighbors at the donor’s home told The Times that they do not see Roberts.

The report has been met with pushback from Roberts, whose office took steps to directly criticize the reporter. Republicans say the senator is a regular presence in the Sunflower State and in touch with the issues. The debate over Roberts’ connection to Kansas comes as he faces a tea party inspired Republican primary challenge from physician Milton Wolf.

“That’s even more ridiculous to those of us who know the senator and know that he is around the state,” state Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) told The Celock Report over the assertion that Roberts is reconnecting with the state. “Roberts is here all the time.”

The primary between Roberts and Wolf is the latest in a series of tea party candidates challenging incumbent Republican senators in primaries that have dominated the party in recent years. In 2010 then Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) lost a GOP convention vote to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), while in 2012 then Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) lost a primary to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. The Lugar defeat was partially blamed on his lack of a residence in the state.

Roberts has been voting in a more conservative fashion, in line with the increase in conservative dominance in Kansas politics in recent years. But, state Republicans argue that Roberts has always been more conservative than the moderate Kansas Republicans, including former U.S. Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum Baker, who long dominated state politics.

“It is a recent thing for conservatives to be the mainstream of the Republican Party in Kansas,” Couture-Lovelady told The Celock Report. “For those who never paid attention to Kansas politics to claim that Pat Roberts is a liberal or moderate are not paying attention.”

Roberts has garnered strong support from conservative Republican leaders, including Gov. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach. In addition, all but a handful of Republican state lawmakers have lined up behind Roberts. This includes conservative state legislators who unseated moderate Republicans in 2012.

Smith Center Mayor Trey Joy (R), who once interned for Roberts in Washington, told The Celock Report that he has seen Roberts directly connected to Kansas issues even while in the Capitol. He said as a mayor he has regularly seen Roberts at events in the state, noting he has been helpful with small airport issues.

Both Couture-Lovelady and Joy noted that Roberts is a regular presence at Kansas State University sporting events in Manhattan. Roberts’ staff noted that he has been to events in over half the state’s 105 counties in recent months. The Times story cited neighbors near his official residence at Dodge City as not seeing him, but Republicans told The Celock Report that Roberts is around the entire state.

“To say he never comes home is ridiculous,” Joy said.

State Republicans do not see Roberts’ vote against the farm bill or an omnibus spending bill that contained funding for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at K-State as hurting him. They noted that the votes are in line with conservative voters who dominate GOP primaries in the state and that the bills contained other projects not just the issues important to Kansans. Republicans dismissed the farm bill as being dominated by food stamp rather than agriculture issues.

Roberts released a statement on the omnibus bill saying that while he worked on the NBAF project at K-State, he voted against the bill due to broader fiscal implications and believes the project could have been funded in other ways.

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, told The Celock Report that Roberts remains a “heavy favorite” to defeat Wolf and Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Loomis noted that while Wolf, a cousin of President Barack Obama, has received support from some groups he is not as strong a candidate as Mourdock was in Indiana.

Loomis said that there have been some questions on Roberts’ recent votes noting the statewide shift to the right. He also said that Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) has been seen more regularly in the state, which has led to some to question if Roberts is returning to Kansas.

Roberts’ office did not return a call for comment. Politico reported that Roberts said he will not let The New York Times define his residency and noted he’s a regular presence in the state.

Kansas Republicans said the Times story isn’t news and that Roberts is engaged with his constituents. State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report that Kansans know that Roberts has to spend time in Washington but stressed he back regularly. Claeys said that he spoke to Roberts in Salina last week.

“We elected him to do a job in Washington not Dodge City. This isn’t news to anyone,” Claeys said. “He’s visited over half of Kansas’ 105 counties in the past year and I imagine that he’ll visit all 105 before election day.”