HOLTON, Kan. — Milton Wolf's chances of becoming the next tea party insurgent to knock off a GOP party titan got a huge boost when it was revealed that incumbent Pat Roberts's official residence in Kansas was rented space in a friend's Dodge City house. The three-term senator seemed perfect for casting as a Washington insider who was out of touch with his home state.
But as Tuesday's Senate primary approaches, the challenge by the suburban Kansas City radiologist is bedeviled by renewed attention to an old episode from his professional life — his posting in 2010 of graphic X-images of patients' injuries on his Facebook page.
Wolf, 43, has apologized for the incident, which came to light months ago, and insists he's now closing the gap with Roberts, who had a wide early lead. But Roberts' campaign is blanketing the airwaves with ads questioning Wolf's judgment. And drawing new attention to the matter was a recent Topeka Capital-Journal report that a state medical board is conducting an investigation of Wolf's actions.
"Roberts is running those attack ads because he's desperate and he sees the trajectory of this," Wolf said during a fajitas-and-chips lunch at a restaurant stop in Osage City, about 35 miles southwest of Topeka.
But the issue is competing against his efforts to focus the campaign on his preferred subject, the problems of entrenched big government.
Wolf has spent the final weeks of the race on a bus tour, buoyed by red-shirted backers at nearly four dozen stops, in which he lambastes old-style Washington politics and promises to fight more aggressively for conservative values. If elected, he says, he'll leave the Beltway after two terms because he's a doctor, not a career politician.
Kansas is fertile territory for the tea party message. It is echoed by numerous GOP candidates for state and federal offices.
In Holton, about 30 miles north of Topeka, where Roberts graduated from high school and where Wolf visited this week, local banker Matt Taylor acknowledged the appeal of fresh blood in the U.S. Senate, but said Wolf's Facebook postings gave him pause.
"It was a turnoff to me, personally," he said.
Roberts and Wolf are on the GOP primary ballot with two lesser-known candidates. Two Democrats and an independent are also running. The GOP counts on keeping the seat, having won every Senate race since 1932.
Tea party groups compare Roberts, who won a House seat in 1980 before being elected to the Senate, to veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who barely survived a GOP primary runoff, and former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who lost his GOP primary race in June in Virginia.
Wolf attacks Roberts relentlessly for owning a Washington-area home while listing the rented space in Kansas as his official residence. Roberts aided Wolf's cause in early July with a gaffe during a Kansas City radio interview, in which he told the interviewer, "Every time I get an opponent — uh, I mean, every time I get a chance — I'm home."
But Roberts has the backing of the state's most prominent conservatives, including Gov. Sam Brownback. He's raised more than $3.4 million since the start of last year, compared to Wolf's $1 million.
Roberts is stressing his electability, and his campaign suggests Wolf's past Facebook postings will allow the unthinkable — a Republican loss in November.
Voters "know the country's in pretty bad shape and they want somebody with experience and somebody that can win in November," Roberts told reporters during a campaign stop in Emporia, about 100 miles southwest of Kansas City.
Wolf acknowledged in February that he'd made the Facebook postings. They included images of fatal gunshot wounds and humorous comments. The State Board of Healings Arts, which licensed and regulates doctors in Kansas, has declined to comment on whether it is investigating the postings, as reported in the newspaper account.
Roberts' ads accuse Wolf of violating patients' privacy, something he strongly disputes. Wolf's supporters say he's accepted responsibility for a mistake. In Osage City, Wilburn Ludlum, a Vasser resident and owner of a lawn-mowing company, called the Roberts spots' "pretty low-down."