Pat Roberts has amassed one of the most conservative records in the Senate, so it was a surprise to many analysts this year when a Republican primary challenger vowed to run to the three-term senator’s right.
The Kansas Republican, after all, has received solid reviews from prominent conservative groups — including the American Conservative Union — and usually is not grouped with the likes of Sens. John McCain of Arizona or Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Republicans who have become regular targets of criticism from grass-roots and tea party activists.
But the Madison Project and the Senate Conservatives Fund announced this month that they are backing Milton Wolf, a tea-party-aligned activist and former Washington Times columnist, in his bid to knock off Mr. Roberts, who is seeking his fourth term in November.
The Club for Growth, which also has taken sides in some Republican primaries, is staying on the sidelines for now and says it is watching the race develop.
“Over the past few decades, he has unfortunately become the quintessential career politician, failing to thwart the unprecedented growth of government when it really counted,” the Madison Project said. “No degree of election-year foxhole conversions to voting conservative can compensate for the vacuum of a principled voice that has been missing in the U.S. Senate.”
Matt Hoskins, spokesman for the Senate Conservative Fund, said Mr. Roberts has simply logged too much time inside the Capital Beltway.
“Sen. Roberts has done some good things, but after more than 20 years in Washington it’s time for a change,” he said.
The two groups also have endorsed businessman Matt Bevin’s attempt to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and — along with the Club for Growth — backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s attempt to topple six-term Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi.
Frustration over shutdown
The growing frustration with Mr. McConnell and Mr. Cochran reached a boiling point this year when they voted to reopen the federal government — a move that torpedoed Sen. Ted Cruz’s no-holds-barred effort to defund Obamacare.
Mr. Roberts, though, opposed the deal and has voted in lock step with the far right of his party on a variety of issues this year.
He voted against the $60 billion bill for Superstorm Sandy aid, which critics said contained billions of dollars for projects that were unrelated to the relief effort.
He has voted against raising the nation’s borrowing limit, called for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and voted against tighter gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
He also opposed the immigration deal that Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, pushed through the Senate and that included an “earned” pathway to citizenship.
“On the surface, Roberts looks like a decent target,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “But over the last decade, and especially the past few years, Roberts has courted the far-right, tea party Republicans in Kansas, both through an increasingly conservative voting record and an aggressive public relations stance, such as his call for [Health and Human Services] Secretary Sebelius’ resignation.”
Mr. Loomis said, “Roberts is receiving substantial support from almost all Kansas Republicans. I don’t see much of an opening at all for Wolf, even if some outside groups may give him some assistance.”
Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, said there is room for Mr. Wolf to outflank Mr. Roberts on the right. “These days, I don’t think any Republican incumbent can take a primary challenge lightly, and Roberts is no exception,” she said.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said Mr. Roberts’ 86 percent lifetime rating with his group is “satisfactory” and enough to win its support in the Republican primary.
“Some of our friends out there are getting a bit out of hand,” Mr. Cardenas said. “My sense is it’s people who have more of a personal agenda than political agenda.”
He also likened the attacks against Mr. Roberts to the attempts to cast Sen. John Cornyn as a liberal ahead of his re-election effort in Texas.
“How can anyone primary him and call him a liberal? It is a joke, and it detracts from the credibility of the [tea party] movement,” he said. “I plan on supporting John Cornyn and Pat Roberts.”
Mr. Roberts is ranked as the fifth most conservative member of the Senate in the most recent breakdown from Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Roberts’ opponents say voters shouldn’t be fooled by his voting record this year and point out that he ranked much lower on Heritage Action’s 2012 list, with a score of 65 percent.
They also accuse him of adopting the same strategy that Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, employed during his re-election fight, running to the right during the campaign only to return to his moderate ways after he won another six-year term.
“It’s important to remember that some of these incumbents are not liberals or even moderates,” Daniel Horowitz, the group’s policy director, said on they website. “But they are not conservatives either. They are a ruling class of special-interest career politicians who pursue personal power as an ends to itself. When it suits their need to cast some conservative votes, they will do so. But when they need to placate the special interests, they will jump in head first. They certainly will never put their careers on the line to fight for us.”