The fight for the Republican Senate nomination in Kansas has turned, in part, into a strange battle between a fourth-generation Kansan and a fifth-generation Kansan over who is more Kansan.
The fourth-generation Kansan is Sen. Pat Roberts, born in Topeka in 1936, and his fifth-generation opponent is Dr. Milton Wolf, born in Lyons in 1970. So far, it's a lopsided affair; the majority of Kansas voters know little about Wolf, who is far behind an opponent familiar after 18 years in the Senate and 16 years in the House. But the Kansan vs. Kansan battle isn't about experience. It's about the strength of each man's ties to his home state.
It started in early February, when the New York Times reported that Roberts, who owns a duplex in Dodge City as well as a house in Alexandria, Va., does not live in the Dodge City home when he is in Kansas. Instead, Roberts has rented out the house for several years; he told the Times he pays a friend $300 a month to stay in a room in the friend's house during visits to his home state. Most of the time, though, Roberts is in Virginia, where his wife has a real estate practice.
The Times even quoted a Dodge City man who said, "I've been here since '77, and I’ve only seen [Roberts] twice" —suggesting that Roberts is rarely at home. Later in the story, the Times told readers that Roberts "has visited 72 of the state's 105 counties, several of them more than once" in the last year. But the main impression left by the article was the suggestion that Roberts, with his long service in Congress, has gone native in Washington.
After the Times story appeared, Wolf started sending out campaign emails with the heading "Pat Roberts (R-VA)." Challenges to Roberts on various issues, like the debt limit, became an opportunity to characterize Roberts as a Virginian, not a Kansan. "In early January, I wrote to Senator Pat Roberts asking him to oppose all future debt ceiling hikes," Wolf said Feb. 12. "Neither Senator Roberts nor his office responded to my letter, so today I sent the letter again, but this time to Senator Roberts' home address in Virginia."
After the Times piece came out, I asked Roberts' team — his spokeswoman in Washington and campaign manager in Kansas — whether it might be useful to look up not where Roberts stays when he is in Kansas but how much he is in his home state during the course of a year. The aides began gathering information — at one point there were six of them going through records. But after a few days, they told me they would not give out the results. "We're not going to release numbers because we're not sure that any number would be acceptable to some of these outside groups," said spokeswoman Sarah Little. "We're worried about what the yardstick is. Who defines how much is enough days in the state?"
Of course, just because the Roberts campaign would not release information on the senator's travels did not mean an opponent would not do the work for them. And indeed, not too long ago, I received an email from a person who insisted on anonymity, passing along publicly available records of Roberts' visits to Kansas. There are a number of ways to figure the days spent there — how does one count travel days, for instance — but here are the basic numbers for the year 2012:
Roberts was in Kansas for all or part of 65 days in 2012. The Senate was in session in Washington for 149 days, although that figure includes a number of days when there were so-called pro forma sessions when no business was done. But even counting all the pro forma days as work days, that leaves 151 days in 2012 when the Senate was not meeting and Roberts was not in Kansas, versus the 65 days Roberts was in his home state.
I asked Roberts' office whether the numbers were accurate and, if so, whether they reflected a reasonable division of the senator's time between Kansas and Washington. In return, I got a call from the senator. Roberts didn't dispute the numbers, but he took care to explain at some length what his work in the Senate involves.
"I don't measure my service in days," Roberts told me. "I try to measure it in results. And I don't think there's one number that can measure the sum total of what I do for Kansas. I think I've achieved the right balance for me, my family and my state. It may not make me first in trips, but I put Kansas first. I think I'm first in results for Kansas."
"Until we really got into this, I don't know if I could have told you how many days I was in Kansas, or for that matter the number of trips and the number of stops in the trips," Roberts continued. "This past week, we went to nine counties." In addition, Roberts said he does frequent tele-town halls with his Kansas constituents.
Roberts discussed his service on the Senate Agriculture Committee — of obvious interest to his home state — as well as his work now and in the past on the Finance Committee, Health Committee, Intelligence Committee and others. He noted his longstanding relationships with Senate leaders of both parties.
Roberts pointed out that a significant part of his work in Washington happened on days when the Senate was not in session. For example, in recent talks over the farm bill, "We were meeting constantly, sometimes on the weekend, sometimes not." On other issues, "We've been trying to fix stuff on behalf of our rural health care coalition," as well as working on problems like crop insurance and rural power.
Sometimes those efforts stretched well beyond a Senate schedule that often lasts just from Tuesday to Thursday. "But the whole point is, I don't measure my service in days," Roberts concluded. "I measure it in results."
Whatever the time Roberts spends in Kansas, there's no doubt he gets around the state. When we spoke on Feb. 26, Roberts said he had been to 76 of the state's 105 counties in the last couple of years, with plans to visit the remaining 29 soon. (Of course Roberts has been to many counties repeatedly during the period.) Roberts also recalled logging thousands of miles going to all of those counties for every campaign since his days in the House of Representatives. (He was first elected to the House in 1980.)
By the way, Roberts told me that on a recent visit he tried to find the man who told the New York Times he had only seen Roberts twice since 1977. So far, no luck.
After my talk with Roberts, I asked the Wolf campaign how many counties Dr. Wolf — like Roberts, a Kansan going way back — has visited in the campaign. "Since the start of the campaign, Milton has been to approximately 50 counties in Kansas," campaign manager Ben Hartman answered. "The campaign was launched last October. Additionally, just this last week, Milton conducted a statewide telephone town hall that called every county in Kansas and had over 5,000 participants."
"Dr. Wolf was not keeping tally of the number of counties visited prior to the start of the campaign because quite frankly, he wasn't preparing to build talking points in advance of a campaign for office," Hartman continued. "What he has been doing is helping tens of thousands of patients right here in Kansas, not spending his time in Virginia."
Hartman's last line suggests the Virginia issue will not go away anytime soon. But the bottom line is that the candidate who doesn't "live in Kansas" has been to more places in Kansas than the candidate who does live there. On the other hand, who would argue that either man, each with deep, deep roots in the state, isn't really a Kansan? In the end, it's likely that other issues -- federal spending, taxes, Obamacare, military strength, the size and scope of government -- will decide who becomes the Republican Senate nominee from Kansas.