Sen. Pat Roberts trashed by Obama cousin for living away from home state

For voters, a senator with a home away from home can signal selling out to Washington. Milton Wolf, a distant relative of the president, is using that argument against Sen. Pat Roberts in Tuesday's Kansas Republican primary.

Charlie Riedel/AP
A campaign bus for Milton Wolf, a Republican challenger for the US Senate in Kansas held by three-term Sen. Pat Roberts (R), drives past a sign for his opponent on primary election day, Tuesday. Dr. Wolf says that Senator Roberts hasn't spent enough time back home in the state.

Location. Location. Location. Where you own a home is everything in real estate … and in politics.

Take Tuesday’s primary race in Kansas, where Republican Sen. Pat Roberts has been pilloried by his tea party opponent, Milton Wolf, for listing his voting address as a room in the home of two political supporters who rent it to him for $300 a month. His primary home is in northern Virginia.

“I have full access to the recliner,” the three-term (that's 18 years) Senator Roberts joked to The New York Times. The quip made perfect fodder for Mr. Wolf’s advertising campaign against the senator as out-of-touch with voters in his home state. 

“Roberts's La-Z-Boy recliner must be terribly lonely," stated an ad that Wolf launched in February. "The donor he rents it from can't even remember the last time Roberts stayed there.”

Wolf, a radiologist who is also President Obama’s second cousin, is behind in the polls. Barring an upset à la Eric Cantor, the House Republican majority leader who suffered a stunning defeat in his Virginia primary on June 10, Wolf is not expected to win.

Still, the issue he raises is anything but ancillary. Just ask former Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. In 2012, he was defeated by his primary opponent, who pummeled him for staying in hotels when he visited his home state. Like Roberts, Mr. Lugar was another longtime senator who owned property in his home state but rented it out and had to arrange for other accommodations when he visited.

The residency issue goes to the heart of a politician’s job: staying close to voters and representing them. If folks at home believe their representative has gone native in Washington, a politician can have a very tough time of it.

In 2004, then-Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota narrowly lost to Republican John Thune, who made hay of Mr. Daschle’s $1.9 million home that he had bought in Washington that year. You can hear the political consultants slapping their hands to their foreheads as they recall that untimely transaction.

Rerun the South Dakota video back to 1980, when longtime Democratic Sen. George McGovern was roundly defeated by Republican James Abdnor, who said Mr. McGovern was out of touch with his state.

Journalist Chuck Raasch described it this way: “The clincher against McGovern came in mid-October. Following a long-held political tradition in South Dakota, McGovern went pheasant hunting. But he was refused an in-state hunting license by a young clerk because he could not produce a South Dakota driver’s license. All of the Abdnor claims that McGovern had forgotten his roots coalesced around that rite.”

The issue of residency didn’t really matter until 1913, when a constitutional amendment established the direct election of US senators by popular vote, says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. Ever since then, senators have had to be mindful of their real estate choices, balancing their checkbooks – it’s costly to maintain two homes – with their need to stay in touch and be visible.

“It’s hard to say if that’s the reason why voters vote against them, but it becomes a point of vulnerability,” says Mr. Ritchie.

The room rental is not the only issue for Roberts. It’s also a matter of time clocked shaking hands. USA Today reports that between July 2011 and August 2013, Roberts spent 97 days in Kansas, according to official Senate records. The state’s junior Republican senator, Jerry Moran, ran circles around him, putting in roughly 475 days over the same time period. 

That’s a vulnerability, alright. But apparently it’s one that Roberts is expected to survive.

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