Kansas is an historically red state with a long history of favoring Republicans for political office. But with the squeaker win of Senator Pat Roberts over his tea party challenger, it is beginning to look like Kansas is a house divided. Roberts was challenged by tea party candidate Milton Wolf, a physician and distant relative of Barack Obama. From the face of it, Wolf should have had no chance at all. He was a newcomer to election politics and was out-funded by the senior politician, but when the votes were counted he only lost by seven percent. In his post-primary speech, the establishment Republican identified what he saw as the problem with this race: factionalism inside the GOP. In that speech Pat Roberts hit back at the tea party and its divisive politics.
“Republicans,” said Roberts, “in Kansas and nationally cannot afford the kind of intraparty fratricide we have seen recently.” Fratricide, the assassination of one brother by another, was the analogy he chose to apply to the recent spate of election squabbles that have been going on in Kansas and elsewhere. The evidence for this characterisation comes from Roberts own race. He and Wolf had similar views on the issues, so similar that one of Wolf’s staffers could not think of a single issue for them to formally debate. Instead, the primary race focused on Roberts’ absentee attitude towards Kansas and Wolf’s ethically questionable posting of patients x-rays to his Facebook. There was no matter of substance or policy to separate these two Republicans.
But there was a difference. Roberts is a well-known, long standing career politician in Washington. He has held office since 1980 and was a staffer in the capitol before that. He is one of the best representations of the establishment there could possible be. Wolf, on the other hand, was a newcomer, an outsider to the political business who was involving himself in politics out of a sense of patriotism. “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC discussed the issue of Kansas’ divided GOP and offered a 1990s quote from current Republican Governor Sam Brownback: it is a race of “idea based Republicans vs. status-based Republicans.” Back when Brownback said that, the issue was Republicans who derived their party membership and office as a kind of family inheritance insted of personally held belief. Today the issue has become the difference between politics as a career and politics as a call to duty.
This seems to be the case for the GOP even beyond Kansas. Eric Cantor’s defeat at the hands of a tea party candidate was the first shocking evidence of an overwhelming ideologically split in the Republican party. It brought the attention of many establishment leaders to the divided nature of their organization and has led to a renewed interest in primaries and elections. Re-election is no longer a sure thing. In Roberts’ case, the National Republican Senatorial Committee threw its weight behind its colleague, boosting turnout enough to create the marginal win. After being caught napping in Cantor’s case, the Republican establishment and Pat Roberts hit back at the tea party in Kansas and showed their power.
Roberts’ victory in one of the reddest states in the union is a good sign for the establishment, but for Democrats it is cause for downright glee. The fracturing of the Republican party has allowed Democratic candidates to gain ground against otherwise unbeatable incumbents. In Kansas, conservative governor Sam Brownback is facing a close race against a Democratic challenger after barely winning a primary challenge. The split in the Republican party is just the opening Democrats need to take down otherwise safe Republican incumbents like Brownback. The small margins between Democrats and Republicans in the polls going into November give weight to Roberts’ warning that the GOP “cannot afford a fractured party.”
Roberts and the establishment may have won this senate primary, but the war over control of the Republican party rages on both locally and nationally. The more divided the GOP becomes, the more Democrats will take advantage of the situation. November will show just how effective Democrats can be, though many predictions do not see much hope that they will gain enough ground to take back the Senate. In the meantime, the GOP establishment is starting to show its power both of mobilisation and monetary power. In Kansas, it worked for them, but it is starting to look like its days are numbered in the face of tea party opposition. In the meantime, Pat Roberts’ warning hit back at the tea party in strong terms, but it is doubtful they will take a career politicians’ advice.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury