Sen. Pat Roberts faced a tough battle. (Charlie Riedel / AP)
Topeka, Kan.— U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts fended off an aggressive challenge Tuesday to win the Republican nomination for a fourth term, despite attacks from his tea party foe that the incumbent had lost touch with Kansas voters.
Milton Wolf, 43, a Leawood radiologist making his first run for public office, failed to pull the upset in the race against Roberts, 78, whose political career dates to the late 1960s, when he was a congressional aide.
After surviving the primary, Roberts is a huge favorite to win his fourth, six-year term in November. Republicans enjoy a nearly 20 percentage-point advantage among registered voters and have won every U.S. Senate race in the past 80 years.
Wolf has said he is a distant relative of President Barack Obama but stresses his strong opposition to the Democrat’s signature health care overhaul. He said his mother and Obama’s grandmother were cousins, describing himself as a second cousin, once removed, of the president. He acknowledges that they did not meet until after Obama was elected.
Roberts overcame an early-July gaffe in a radio interview about the rented space in a Dodge City home he lists as his official residence, and attacked Wolf over questionable postings of graphic X-ray images on a personal Facebook page in 2010.
Wolf had the backing of national tea party groups that were energized by U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in Virginia’s GOP primary in June.
Roberts is the fifth Republican senator to stave off a tea party-inspired primary challenge this year. His race, though, ended up being “a little closer than it should have been,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
“It demonstrates that Roberts isn’t all that strong a candidate, and maybe a stronger candidate could have taken him on,” Loomis said. Wolf wasn’t “able to convince people that he was a serious alternative,” he said.
Roberts, seeking a fourth term, is in strong position to win November’s general election in a state Obama twice lost by double digits. Though Wolf also may have been favored, his nomination would have cast more doubt on the Republican prospects for holding the seat.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the 100-member Senate, and not having to devote national party resources to the Kansas race will help that effort. Analysts rate Democrats the underdogs in maintaining three seats they now hold — in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — and the party is defending several other seats rated as toss-ups.
Republican incumbents who beat back earlier tea party-backed bids to oust them in Senate primaries this year were Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Bloomberg News contributed.