Sen. Pat Roberts beat back tea party challenger Milton Wolf in Tuesday’s Kansas Senate primary — keeping intact the perfect record of sitting Republican senators and clearing the way for the veteran lawmaker to secure a fourth term in the November election.
The contest was seen as the second-to-last chance for the insurgent wing of the GOP to send a sitting senator packing in the 2014 primary season, with only Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee left to face a serious challenge in this off-year election cycle.
The Associated Press called the race for Mr. Roberts roughly three hours after the polls closed.
With 87.1 percent of precincts counted, Mr. Roberts, 78, held a lead of 48.2 percent to 40.7 percent — more than nearly 18,000 votes — over Mr. Wolf, a 43-year-old radiologist who has distant family ties to President Obama and who had support from national tea party groups, including Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express.
“Senate incumbents remain undefeated this cycle, which offers a strong argument against the idea that we’re in an era of widespread voter revolt against federal officeholders,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Roberts ran a far from perfect race but clearly benefited from a weak opponent who did not excite outside conservative groups.”
Missouri, Michigan and Washington also held primaries Tuesday.
The roles between the warring factions of the GOP were reversed in Michigan, where businessman Dave Trott knocked off Rep. Kerry Bentivolio in the 11th Congressional District.
Mr. Bentivolio had tea party support, but had been billed as the “accidental congressman” after winning the seat in 2012 when Rep. Thad McCotter failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.
Mr. Bentivolio is the third House Republican to lose in a nomination race, following in the footsteps of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas.
Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, warned against reading too much into the race, saying via Twitter “This race wasn’t GOP [establishment] vs. Tea Party, it was GOP [establishment] vs. accidental Congressman.”
In the 3rd Congressional District, Rep. Justin Amash, whose strong libertarian bent has made him a favorite of the Club for Growth and tea partyers, defeated Brian Ellis, a businessman endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Back in Kansas, Rep. Mike Pompeo won his race against the challenge of ex-Rep. Todd Tiahrt in the state’s 4th Congressional District. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who has been a thorn in the side of House GOP leaders, also was renominated in the 1st Congressional District.
Heading into the midterms, Republicans need to win six Senate seats to flip control of the chamber.
The Republican establishment has been focused on avoiding a repeat of some of the 2010 and 2012 races in which insurgent candidates ousted incumbents in primaries and lost the seats in the general election. Incumbents survived challenges in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist, said the losses could spark some soul-searching among the GOP’s anti-establishment forces.
“As a career politician and a permanent fixture on Capitol Hill since the late 1960s who doesn’t even own a home in the state he represents, Pat Roberts embodies all that conservatives loathe, and by all means Roberts should have been ‘dust in the wind’ in this era of hyper-Beltway conservative discontent, yet he survived,” Mr. O’Connell said.
“Tea party groups have lost the element of surprise when trying to mow down an incumbent in high-profile races, and will likely need to go back to the drawing board and improve their tactics as well as their candidate selection,” he said.
Mr. Roberts is expected to defeat Chad Taylor, who won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, in the fall election.
Fellow Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, congratulated Mr. Roberts, saying he has “served as a diligent check on Democrats’ push for ever expansive government and is a true conservative voice for our state.”
Tea party aligned groups, meanwhile, celebrated Mr. Amash’s victory in Michigan.
“Justin will continue to be a stalwart member of the pro-growth caucus in Washington and he’ll always stand up to the big-government liberals in both parties,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth.
The battle over the future direction of the party will play out again Thursday in Tennessee.
Tea party-backed state Rep. Joe Carr is challenging Mr. Alexander, who served two terms as governor and was secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.
The Senate race in Kansas turned ugly early on after the Wolf camp pounced on a February report in The New York Times that said Mr. Roberts spent more of his free time living in the Washington suburbs than he did in Kansas.
Later that month, Mr. Wolf came under fire for posting gruesome pictures of X-ray images on Facebook and making off color remarks about them.
Both issues haunted each of the candidates throughout the campaign.
The Roberts camp also accused Mr. Wolf of not paying income taxes in 2000.
The Wolf camp and its allies, meanwhile, ripped Mr. Roberts for backing the nomination of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to be secretary of health and human services, making her the face of Obamacare. And Mr. Wolf recently confronted Mr. Roberts on the street, challenging him to a debate.
Matt Hickam, a Kansas-based GOP strategist, summed up the race by saying, “This race has evolved into a kitchen sink campaign — both candidates throwing everything but the kitchen sink at one another.”
Mr. Wolf, though, could not breakthrough on Election Day — thanks in part to Mr. Roberts’ deep roots in the state and financial edge.
Mr. Roberts had raised $4.7 million as of July 16 and spent more than $3.4 million. Mr. Wolf had raised more than $1 million and spent $973,000, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Outside groups, including the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund as well as the Senate Conservatives Fund and its super PAC, spent more than $588,000 against Mr. Roberts. Mr. Roberts, meanwhile, received support from the American Hospital Association and the National Rifle Association.