DODGE CITY — It is hard to find anyone who has seen Sen. Pat Roberts here at the red-brick house on a golf course that his voter registration lists as his home.
Across town at the Inn Pancake House on Wyatt Earp Boulevard, breakfast regulars say the Republican senator is a virtual stranger.
“He calls it home,” said Jerald Miller, a retiree. “But I’ve been here since ’77, and I’ve only seen him twice.”
Roberts, 77, went to Congress in 1981 and became a fixture: a member of the elite Alfalfa Club and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which made him a regular on the Sunday talk shows. His wife became a real estate broker in Alexandria, Va., the suburb where the couple live, boasting of her “extensive knowledge” of the area.
But such emblems of Washington status have turned hazardous in a Republican establishment threatened by the Tea Party and unnerved by the defeat of incumbents like Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who was viewed as a creature of the capital.
Roberts is now desperate to re-establish ties to Kansas and to adjust his politics to fit the rise of the right in the state. But his efforts underscore the awkward reality of Republicans who, after coming of age in an era of comity and esteem for long-term service, are trying to remake themselves to be warriors for a Tea Party age.
Roberts, who has served three terms in the Senate, acknowledged that he did not have a home in Kansas. The house on a country club golf course that he lists as his voting address belongs to two longtime supporters and donors – C. Duane and Phyllis Ross – and he says he stays with them when he is in the area.
He established his voting address there the day before his challenger, Milton Wolf, announced his candidacy in the fall, arguing that Roberts was out of touch with his Kansas roots.
“I have full access to the recliner,” the senator joked. Turning serious, he added, “Nobody knows the state better than I do.”
That assertion would be disputed by Tea Party activists energized by Wolf’s candidacy.
“In four and one-half going on five years of existence, have we been contacted by Sen. Roberts or any of his staff? Not once,” said Chuck Henderson, a Tea Party activist in Manhattan, who mocked the notion of the senator’s “official” residence here.
Divisions in the party
Roberts’ race highlights the divisions within the Republican Party that are playing out in primaries across the country at a time when anti-Washington animus is running high and more-moderate voices have been displaced by lawmakers with conservative positions on abortion, taxes and education.
Roberts has not only established a new voting address in the past year, but also suddenly begun aligning himself with the most conservative elements of the Senate, after a career in the mainstream conservative tradition of fellow Kansans like Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.
He opposed a major spending project at his beloved alma mater, Kansas State University, that he had sought for a decade because it was tied to a larger appropriations measure. And he called for the resignation of the health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, the daughter-in-law of his former boss, Rep. Keith Sebelius, over the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
“It isn’t personal,” Roberts said of demanding that Sebelius quit. “Was it tough? Sure, it was tough.”
When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took to the Senate floor in the fall for 21 hours to protest the Affordable Care Act, Roberts joined him in the early morning.
He also opposed a U.N. treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities after being personally lobbied to support it by his predecessor, Kassebaum, and by Dole, who uses a wheelchair. Roberts said he did not trust the United Nations.
“I have to say I’m disappointed in Pat,” said Kassebaum, referring to both the treaty vote and his larger reluctance to stand up to his party’s right wing. “You’re not sent there just to go whichever way the polls tell us.”
Dole, who supports Roberts, acknowledged that his old friend’s vote had irritated him “a little bit.”
“My view is we need to be a party of inclusion, and that includes moderates as well as conservatives,” Dole said.
Roberts’ aides candidly acknowledge that the moves are an effort to ensure that he will not suffer the same fate as Lugar, who was criticized for staying in hotels when he returned home and listed on his voter registration an Indianapolis address at which he did not reside.
Roberts moved his address from a rental property he owned in Dodge City but had long since leased to tenants, and got a new driver’s license giving the golf course home as his address.
He began paying the Rosses $300 a month to allow him to stay overnight with them occasionally.
“We’re not going to get Lugar’d,” said David Kensinger, an adviser to Roberts.
Duane Ross said that he could not remember how many times the senator had stayed at the family’s home since October.
“I would say several,” he said.
Asked when the last time was, he said he could not remember, and the senator’s staff also declined to provide dates, but said he had stayed there “a few” times.
Mistrust of D.C.
Job security has rarely been an issue for Roberts, who has tended to his state’s agricultural needs and delivered projects.
He won with 60 percent of the vote in 2008, before the rise of the Tea Party, with its anti-establishment ethos, suspicion of long-term Washington tenure and emphasis on ideological purity.
“I think career politicians are changed by Washington,” said Wolf, Roberts’ opponent, who is a radiologist and a second cousin of President Barack Obama on the president’s maternal side.
Kansas has not had a Democratic U.S. senator since 1939, but the Republican Party here no longer embraces the consensus-minded centrist-style politics of its most famous son, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The national Tea Party-versus-establishment battle has become particularly vivid in Kansas, where conservatives, including Gov. Sam Brownback, have ousted their party’s old guard from power in the state Capitol after decades in which a coalition of center-right Republicans and Democrats had effective control.
“Pat’s very cognizant of what’s happened to the party,” said Brownback, who served alongside Roberts in the Senate until being elected governor in 2010.
Given the changing political climate, Brownback says Roberts is doing precisely what he needs to do to win another term.
“Being active, being aggressive, being conservative,” the governor said. “He’s got to get through a Republican primary, and people are pretty fired up about what’s going on at the federal level.”
Nowhere is mistrust of Washington more evident than in the state Capitol. There are two statues of Eisenhower in the building, but conversations with the new vanguard of conservatives here seem to reflect the Capitol’s gripping mural of a zealous-looking John Brown more than the even-tempered Eisenhower.
“I believe that to really turn the country around there will have to be some political martyrs out there,” said state Rep. Marty Read, R-Mound City, a rancher and auctioneer who is one of the few state legislators backing Wolf.
Still, Wolf’s obstacles are formidable. He has only $179,000 in the bank, compared with Roberts’ $2.2 million, but his aides are hoping to win over deep-pocked outside groups such as the Club for Growth by demonstrating viability before the August primary.
On policy, though, Wolf already is having an impact.
The latest reminder came this week when Roberts opposed the five-year, nearly $1 trillion farm bill prized by leaders of the Kansas farm lobby but opposed by Tea Party activists. Roberts, who had written an earlier version of the measure, said the final legislation included too many subsidies.
Roberts conceded that “everything’s changed” about politics since he began working as a young staff member.
He arrived in Washington in 1967 and was elected in 1980, in an era when finding a new house and school for the children in the capital area was as much a part of coming to Congress as learning how to cast a vote, and he was rarely questioned back home.
Now, connectedness to the home state is more important than ever in an election climate with Congress’ approval ratings at record lows and conservative activists seeking purity, not pork-barrel spending. T
The new political reality helps explain his extraordinary efforts to establish voting residency and be seen back in the state – in the last year, he has visited 72 of the state’s 105 counties, several of them more than once.
Sitting in his Senate office, across from a painting of a covered wagon, and photographs and totems from Kansas, Roberts said his fealty to the state where his ancestors settled in the 1800s was beyond question.
“I’ve been to every county in Kansas more than anybody else,” he said, pausing for a moment before noting that only Dole “might quarrel with that.”
“Senators have a tendency to get involved in their committees and important works,” Roberts said, recalling Lugar. “You get involved in that, and you’re not out there touring 105 counties like I am. We get out.”