Milton Wolf, an embattled Republican Senate candidate from Kansas, was not an invited speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, but he still made sure to come, flying to Washington on a turbulent morning flight and setting up shop in a hotel room, hoping to connect with activists who could revive his campaign.
Ben Hartman, Wolf’s campaign manager, had cans of Pepsi and Sierra Mist available near the door, along with a bucket of ice. A hotel attendant wheeled in pots of coffee, which went untouched. A handful of Wolf’s supporters drifted in and out as Hartman went over his schedule Thursday.
“There’s a blog bash tonight across the street,” he said. “We’re looking into whether you can get up and say a few words.”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Wolf said, looking down at his CPAC credential, which said “Individual,” CPAC’s label for general attendees.
In recent weeks, Wolf’s insurgent, tea party primary bid against Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas’s three-term senator, has been rocked by news of his social media activities, which have included posts of grisly X-ray images on his Facebook page along with snarky commentary.
Sinking into a plush chair, Wolf acknowledged the flurry of articles and columns on his posts has been bruising and erased much of the fun of being a candidate. “You sure pay a price,” he said. But the radiologist continues to believe he can topple Roberts, even if the political class is skeptical.
That’s why he came to CPAC, this annual and eclectic gathering of the right’s talk-radio favorites, interest-group leaders and college students. At this moment, well behind Roberts in the polls, he needs his race, somehow, to become a to-the-barricades cause for conservatives.
“These kind of political conventions, I love ’em,” Wolf said. “They’re nerd-fests for people like us. We can all come together, and, you know, when I walk through these halls, people say hello and wish me well.”
By late afternoon, Wolf had huddled with a slew of conservative organizations, such as Young Americans for Liberty, and he had a meeting on the way with Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express, which has endorsed him. Courting groups that have stayed on the sidelines, such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, was another priority.
Even at CPAC, however, being an upstart isn’t easy, with the conservative movement either ambivalent or wary of getting excited about Wolf, who gained notice early during the race for his fiery stump speeches, his slicked-back hair, and for being a distant cousin of President Obama.
“The cousin thing, that’s what people know,” Wolf said.
“Look — I get it, and I’ve owned up to my mistakes,” he said. “I’ve taken down those posts, which I know were insensitive. But Pat Roberts, this man who lives in Virginia, is going negative, and I think he’s real worried about our campaign, which is drawing big, big crowds across Kansas.”
Roberts, who owns a home in Dodge City, Kan., that currently has tenants living in it, spends most days at his house in Virginia. Earlier this year, questions over Roberts’s residency became the thrust of Wolf’s critique and gave his campaign a short-lived boost. Weeks later, the story largely fizzled as Wolf struggled to contain the media storm over his Facebook posts.
Wolf isn’t letting the residency issue rest.
“We started to take a recliner to our events!” he said. “Roberts says he stays in a recliner when he’s home, so now we’re looking at tying it into a fundraiser, have people sit in it. A picture in Pat’s house? $25!”
Both Hartman and Wolf chuckle, recalling better times when Wolf was on the cusp of becoming a top contender on the right, the kind of candidate who’d be a celebrity at CPAC, swarmed by camera-toting students and inquiring reporters — the next Marco Rubio or Mike Lee.
But Wolf isn’t there yet — far from it — and he knows it. He gets up, grabs a water bottle and starts to walk out toward the lobby. He has more meetings, parties to attend and hallways to stroll, all to find a way back.