Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts could have a tough time getting through his primary this year, a new poll suggests.
The veteran Republican Senator is facing a primary challenge from Milton Wolf, a doctor and a cousin of President Barack Obama. Wolf is running to Roberts’ right, and has the backing of outside conservative groups, including the Senate Conservatives Fund.
A poll out Friday from Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling found that while Kansans were still largely unfamiliar with Wolf, there was a fair amount of dissatisfaction with Roberts on which he could capitalize if he can raise his profile.
Roberts beats Wolf handily in a head-to-head match up. Forty-nine percent of Republican primary voters say they would choose the senator, while over 23 percent would choose Wolf. But in a match up with a generic “more conservative” candidate, the race is much closer: Roberts leads 43 percent to 39 percent. Since Wolf still remains widely unknown — 76 percent of Republicans say they’re “not sure” what they think of him — and there is the potential for the numbers to move in his favor as more voters get to know him.
Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, however, since the question voters were asked were rather leading.
“Generally speaking, would you like the Republican candidate for Senate this year to be Pat Roberts or someone more conservative?” one question asks. Wolf is portraying himself as someone who is to the right of Roberts, but since Wolf has no voting record, it’s hard to objectively compare which one is more conservative than the other. A number of voters may want somebody more conservative than Roberts, but there’s no guarantee that they will decide Wolf is that person.
Roberts’ campaign manager Leroy Towns called that question “meaningless.”*
“The only reason they’re ever asked in a poll when a candidate has the opponent … is to discredit the incumbent,” he told The Daily Caller.
The poll also found that Republican primary voters see Roberts as more of a creature of D.C. than of Kansas. Forty percent of Republicans said they felt he did not spend enough time in Kansas, compared to 32 percent who said he was in the state enough. 42 percent said they believed the Senator was more concerned with being an insider than representing Kansas; 34 percent said he was more focused on representing Kansas. That sense may have been reinforced in recent weeks, after the New York Times reported that Roberts does not have a home in Kansas, but stays with donors when he goes back. Roberts pushed back vehemently on the report, calling it a “hit piece” and the allegations “false.”
“Pat Roberts has been intentionally misleading the voters of Kansas about where he really lives for years, and voters clearly aren’t happy to find out that he’s really a resident of Virginia, having long since abandoned Kansas,” said Wolf campaign manager Ben Hartman in a statement on the poll.
Roberts had a net positive approval rating with Republican voters: 38 percent approve, 31 percent disapprove. But PPP notes that his net approval rating among all Kansans has declined 12 points since February of 2013, when he had a net positive approval rating of 31-28. Now, his approval rating is net negative, with only 29 percent saying they approve and 38 percent saying they disapprove of his job performance.
Towns pointed to the fact that Roberts does very well among very conservative voters, with 48 percent approving of his job performance, and 56 percent saying they prefer him to Wolf, compared to 25 percent who prefer Wolf.
“Conservatives just aren’t buying Milton Wolf’s line. They know Roberts is a trusted and test conservative,” Towns said.
The poll surveyed 375 Republican primary voters from February 18 through February 20 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percentage points. The full sample was 693 Kansas voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
*This post has been updated with comments from the two campaigns.