HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Milton Wolf rattles off Kansas Republicans Sen. Pat Roberts’ 2012 conservative group scorecard figures like a guy who plays the same lotto numbers each week.
“Club for Growth 55, FreedomWorks 54, Heritage Action 65,” says Wolf, reciting Roberts’ grades, listed on a 100 point scale, during an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation before a tea party event in Hutchinson, Kan.
Wolf is challenging Roberts in the Republican primary.
The 42 year-old diagnostic radiologist, who has made a name for himself as a distant cousin of President Obama, compares those stats to Roberts’ 2013 scorecards, which skyrocketed into the 90s.
“In 2013, he started acting like a conservative again because I was coming after him,” said Wolf on the stump at the tea party event, which was attended by around 200 people from a central Kansas community about 50 miles north of Wichita.
By calling into question Roberts’ conservative credentials, Wolf is employing perhaps the only viable strategy against the 77-year-old incumbent, who has accumulated many political assets during his 33 years in Congress — 16 in the House and 17 in the Senate.
Like many tea party candidates this year, Wolf faces long odds.
According to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Wolf has around $180,000 in cash on hand — $30,000 of which came from a personal loan from the candidate himself — compared to Roberts’ $2.25 million.
That gap likely increased on the night of the tea party event, which was being hosted by a group called the Patriot Freedom Alliance. As Wolf pointed out to the crowd, which was filled mostly with veterans, farmers, and their wives, Roberts was in Washington D.C. at a $2,000 per lobbyist wine-tasting event.
“I can tell you I won’t be hanging out at those,” Wolf said during his hour long presentation.
Wolf held a “money bomb,” an online fundraiser made popular by previous tea party darlings like Ron and Rand Paul during their campaigns.
Ben Hartman, Wolf’s campaign director, called the money bomb “a very huge success” and said it exceeded the campaign’s goal. Hartman declined to provide figures saying that they’ll be released at the next required federal filing date.
But even if Wolf raises enough money, he will have to overcome the nearly unanimous support Roberts has among state Republicans.
The powerful Kansas Farm Bureau also supports Roberts, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose current chairman is the other Kansas senator, Jerry Moran, has provided tacit backing for Robert.
Wolf’s biggest backers come mostly from outside the state, due in large part to his stint as a columnist for the Washington Times and as a traveling tea party speaker. RedState’s Erick Erickson, radio powerhouse Mark Levin, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Tea Party Express have thrown their weight behind Wolf.
Hoping to turn those activist endorsements turn into support back home, Wolf’s camp has jumped on any poll that suggests a tight race.
They cheered a straw poll held at a meeting of Kansas Young Republicans in January that showed a 17-17 tie between their man and Roberts, though the head of the organization later said that the poll results were mischaracterized in the media.
The campaign also saw light in a poll from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic pollster.
While PPP found Roberts leading 49 percent to 23 percent, Wolf’s campaign seized on the fact that it showed only 24 percent name recognition. And Roberts showed only a 29 percent favorable rating versus a 38 percent unfavorable rating, according to the poll.
“I would strongly counter that any poll showing a weak favorable rating for Senator Roberts is just flat wrong,” Roberts campaign manager Leroy Towns told TheDCNF.
Among Republicans — who will decide which candidate faces off against a strawman Democrat — Roberts rates 39 percent favorable and 27 percent unfavorable. Among Republicans in the PPP poll, Wolf has a 9 percent favorable and 12 percent unfavorable split.
But those numbers could fall since they were registered before controversy struck Wolf’s campaign.
Several years ago, before seeking seeking office, Wolf posted anonymous X-rays on Facebook and joked with followers about some of the patients’ injuries.
Wolf — who during his medical residency published radiology software that used anonymous X-rays — has been apologetic for the posts, but says that there was no ethical breach.
“The images themselves, so long as you remove personal identifiers, it is entirely appropriate to share that,” Wolf told TheDCNF, adding that he was sorry about the incident and removed the posts because “I didn’t want to leave that kind of witness”.
If nothing, the controversy sapped energy from one that had embattled Roberts.
Last month, the New York Times reported that instead of having an established residence, Roberts was merely paying a Dodge City couple — donors — $300 a month in rent to stay at their home when he was in town, which wasn’t often.
“I have full access to the recliner,” Roberts quipped.
Residency issues helped cost Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar renomination in 2012. Lugar had served in the Senate since 1977.
Connie Schmitt, who runs the Hutchinson Tea Party and the Patriot Freedom Alliance which hosted Wolf, thinks Roberts’ distance from Kansas and his longevity are important issues.
“Why don’t you go home? And where is home by the way?” she said of Roberts. Schmitt says that she has faith that Wolf will ultimately prevail over the incumbent.
“I think you have a David against Goliath scenario,” says Schmitt. “I’m going to bet on David. I read the Bible.”
Longevity was an issue for another tea party event attendee.
“I know Pat. I told him he’s too old to be running anymore,” said one audience member during question-and-answer.
Wolf himself has ties to his opponent. “I voted for him more times than I can remember,” Wolf told the event audience.
But now he has three major complaints with Roberts, whom Wolf says is part of the “go-along-get-along” faction of the GOP: Roberts voted to confirm former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to run the Department of Health and Human Services; he has cast 11 votes to raise the debt ceiling; and he voted last year in favor of the fiscal cliff $600 billion tax hike.
“I’m surprised he’s still in the race,” Kenneth Ciboski, a political science professor at Wichita State University, said of Wolf.
Ciboski also questioned whether Kansas has a true tea party spirit since “the agricultural sector have received more assistance from the federal government” than many other industries.
Wolf’s rise to tea party prominence has also raised some questions in the Sunflower State over whether he’s merely capitalizing on his kinship to Obama. Wolf says he first learned of the family ties in 2008 from his mother who heard her uncle’s name mentioned in relation to Obama. He began speaking at political events about the pitfalls of Obamacare in 2010.
“I haven’t tried to plan out or plot out some path to politics,” says Wolf, who reiterates “I’m a doctor, not a politician.”
He adds that he and Karrie, his wife of 23 years with whom he has two children, had what they call their “lost decade” between his practice, raising kids, and medical school. “I’m actually still paying off my student loans,” Wolf acknowledges.
“But I get it,” says Wolf of the skepticism. “The idea that President Obama has an unapologetic conservative cousin who’s being described as the next Ted Cruz is interesting.”
The primary is in August.
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