Steve Kraske: Roberts running to the right

10/16/2013 12:00 AM

10/15/2013 5:03 PM

On Tuesday of last week, tea partier Milton Wolf announced he was running for the U.S. Senate in Kansas against longtime incumbent Pat Roberts.

On Friday, Roberts called on Health and Human Services Secretary and former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to resign for “gross incompetence” in connection with the rollout of Obamacare.

If you think those two developments aren’t connected, then you probably think the Kansas Jayhawks are headed for the national championship this year – in football.

And to think that Sebelius and Roberts used to be friends.

Here’s a truism about Kansas politics these days: The state has turned red-hot conservative in part because incumbents are vulnerable only by campaigns run against them from the right.

Think about it. Moderate Kansas Republicans like former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum are as outmoded as Model T’s. Democrats? They haven’t won a U.S. Senate seat in the state since the 1930s – the longest such streak in the country.

So incumbents like Roberts are constantly looking over their right shoulders, because that’s the only place they’re vulnerable. That, in turn, has pushed all of them to vote more conservatively than they ordinarily might and take extraordinary, high-profile steps like calling for Sebelius to resign.

All this has real consequences. Just last year, the Star’s Dave Helling and I found that Kansas’ House delegation was the most conservative in America.

It’s all because of people like Wolf, a 42-year-old Leawood radiologist who announced his campaign with a slick video, free food, ready-made T-shirts and yard signs in a display that screamed he’s got big-money backing from somewhere.

“No one should be in Congress for four decades,” Wolf intoned at the Ritz Charles in Overland Park.

Roberts regularly rails against Obamacare. He opposes Janet Yellen for Federal Reserve chairman. He opposes abortion.

But that’s not conservative enough for Wolf, who cited Roberts’ past votes to raise the debt limit and confirm Sebelius as HHS secretary.

Roberts wasn’t always so hard right. He was seen as more pragmatic in the ’80s and ’90s and once savaged the Kansas GOP’s rightward plunge in the late 1990s as akin to a death march.

For years, he and Gov. Sam Brownback were more enemies than friends.

No more. Roberts these days is die-hard conservative. In Kansas, that’s the only safe place to be.

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