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Pat Roberts Survives Tea Party Challenge in Kan. Primary

Pat Roberts Survives Tea Party Challenge in Kan. Primary

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 6, 2014

Add Pat Roberts to the growing list of GOP senators who have survived Tea Party challenges during the primary season, distinguishing this cycle from the history-making midterms four years ago, which sent several longtime lawmakers home.

The three-term Kansas senator was considered the conservative movement’s last best target in its hunt for Washington establishment figures. In many ways, Roberts certainly met the criteria for a challenge. Having lived in Virginia for the past three decades, he faced residency questions that doomed other influential incumbents.

But the race was also emblematic of how the Tea Party this year has failed to organize around viable opposition candidates. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn overcame conservative challenges in Kentucky and Texas, respectively, as did Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. In one of the nastiest and most surprising (and seemingly never-ending) races of the cycle, Thad Cochran survived a runoff primary to stay in the race for his Mississippi seat. Roberts, who earned a 7.3 percentage-point win Tuesday over radiologist Milton Wolf, is the latest to do so, and one of the last as the primary season nears its end.

On Thursday, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander will face a similar challenge in Tennessee, but is expected to emerge victorious. But, as some primaries this cycle have shown -- a la Eric Cantor -- no incumbent can take a challenge and favorable polling for granted.

Alexander is a two-term former governor, an education secretary under George H.W. Bush, and has served two terms in the Senate. If successful later this week, his re-election strategy will be noted: He raised significant sums of money to warn off challengers, got many of his state’s politicos and officeholders behind him, and went back to Tennessee often.

However, Alexander didn’t adjust his voting behavior. Instead, he backed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that many in his party rejected, and is a frequent member of bipartisan working groups. His opponent, Joe Carr, hasn’t been able to gain much traction, but he hopes the immigration vote will help him overtake the incumbent.

Still, Roberts’ win suggests Tennessee may be even more of a long shot for conservatives seeking an end-of-season trophy. The Kansas senator was considered more vulnerable than Alexander, and he won comfortably over Wolf, a distant cousin of President Obama.

If not for Wolf’s own problems -- he posted X-ray images of gunshot victims (some of them deceased) online with inappropriate comments attached -- Roberts’ could have had a more difficult go of it.

In February, the New York Times reported that Roberts doesn’t actually own a home in Kansas, but rents space from supporters when he is back in the state. Wolf centered his attacks on this residency issue, which dogged now-ex Sen. Richard Lugar two years ago in Indiana. Roberts also inadvertently made things worse for himself. In a radio interview earlier this summer, he said, “Every time I get an opponent -- I mean, every time I get a chance -- I’m home.”

The Kansas race also underscored how Washington experience and influence can be more of a liability than an asset in some states. Roberts apparently realized this and adjusted his votes to sync up with what he and other lawmakers perceive to be their constituents’ changing views toward government. In this session, for example, he voted against the bipartisan Farm Bill and also called for the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a friend of his and also a former governor of Kansas.

Kansas is a red state, and Roberts is virtually assured to keep his seat in the general election. But the gubernatorial race there will be a top contest to watch in the fall. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is under fire for enacting sweeping tax cuts that led to a downgrade in the state’s credit rating, as well as other controversial budget cuts, including to education. In retaliation, over 100 Republican state lawmakers backed the governor’s Democratic challenger, Paul Davis. Brownback also irked fellow Republicans by supporting several conservative challengers to state incumbents. The governor’s race is now considered a toss-up in November.

Primaries in Michigan Tuesday night yielded mixed results for incumbents. In a couple of races, the Tea Party vs. establishment dynamics were reversed.

In the 11th District, freshman Rep. Kerry Bentivolio became the third House incumbent to lose his seat in a primary this cycle. The colorful, Tea Party-backed reindeer farmer was a top target of establishment Republicans. Mitt Romney and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed his opponent, self-funding foreclosure lawyer David Trott.

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Justin Amash, a Tea Party-backed libertarian who has notoriously butted heads with GOP leadership and has lost committee posts because of it, survived a challenge from an establishment-backed candidate in his state’s 3rd District.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce backed businessman Brian Ellis, who used his own money to help finance his campaign. He ran against Amash on defense issues, running ads that criticized his opponent for backing closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and quoted a colleague who called Amash a friend to al-Qaeda.

But the strategy was ineffective, as Amash won Tuesday by nearly 15 points.

Amash was the second libertarian-aligned lawmaker to survive an establishment challenge this cycle. North Carolina’s Walter Jones beat back a serious challenge from a former Bush administration official in May.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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