EUREKA, Kan.— Orella Hosack, wearing a “Choose Life” shirt and sitting at the edge of the room at the Copper Kettle restaurant, liked what she was hearing from a tea party candidate challenging the state’s longtime GOP senator.
But she had also heard a potentially alarming rumor — that Milton Wolf, the radiologist trying to unseat Sen. Pat Roberts in Tuesday’s primary, is related to President Obama — and she wanted him to address it.
“If you’ve been paying attention to the campaign, you know there are a lot of vicious personal attacks,” Wolf replied. “I think you deserve to know that one of the things that Pat Roberts says about me is true. Barack Obama and I are actually cousins.”
“First cousins?” someone in the audience shouted with a tone of disbelief.
“Second cousins,” Wolf replied. “Can you believe that? The next Ted Cruz is Barack Obama’s unapologetic conservative cousin.”
Styling himself as an ideological ally to Cruz, the Texas senator, Wolf is the latest tea party insurgent hoping to topple a well-funded Republican incumbent. The outcome of the primary contest between Roberts and Wolf could determine if a state long known for sending moderates to the Senate will take another rightward shift.
The race is among the most colorful in the nation, with a debate not just over Wolf’s family connections but also about X-rays of gunshot wounds posted on Facebook by the radiologist and whether Roberts actually lives in the state he has represented for 33 years.
Roberts remains the favorite but has vulnerabilities. The incumbent has taken a number of votes in recent years viewed as problematic by the tea party, including to increase the debt ceiling, approve a tax deal with Obama and confirm former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius as health and human services secretary.
But his biggest troubles began this year after the the New York Times reported that he hadn’t really been living in the home he owned in Dodge City, a frontier town on the Arkansas River known as the windiest city in the United States. Instead, he was renting a $300-a-month room from donors to officially maintain his residency in the state.
After word began to spread about Roberts’s frequent absence, he seemed not to recognize the political danger that loomed.
“I have full access to the recliner,” he joked with a reporter when asked about the rental.
Last month, Roberts, who lives in Virginia, stumbled again in a radio interview. “Every time I get an opponent — I mean, every time I get a chance, I’m home,” he said. “I don’t measure my record . . . as a senator as how many times I sleep wherever it is.”
The gaffes have created an opening for Wolf, who is being aided by a Texas team of political strategists and supported by the hard-right Senate Conservatives Fund. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) famously lost to a conservative challenger in 2012 after it became clear he no longer owned a home in the state and was rarely there.
“I’m going to give him permanent access to the recliner,” said Wolf, who has narrowed the gap in the polls from 33 percent to 20 percent. One cheeky Kansan created a Twitter account for “Pat Roberts Recliner.”
In an interview, Roberts said he is upset that the race has turned in such a negative direction. “I don’t think we should be in the business of these other issues that basically represent personal attacks,” he said. “I’m the guy who invented listening tours around Kansas. I work hard wherever I am.”
But Roberts has not shied away from shooting back. He has released a barrage of television ads attacking Wolf for posting X-rays of gunshot wounds and other injuries on Facebook and making light of his patients’ predicaments.
In one X-ray, revealed by the Topeka Capital-Journal, a skull has been broken apart, with the vertebra exposed, by a gunshot. “One of my all-time favorites,” Wolf wrote as a comment on the photo. “What kind of gun blows somebody’s head completely off? I’ve got to get one of those.
Wolf added in the comment, “It reminds [me] of the scene from ‘Terminator 2’. . . . We all find beauty in different things.”
Roberts said the behavior raises serious questions about Wolf’s character. “The main question is posting private information on the Web and mocking the wounds of murder victims in a way that I think was very callous,” he said.
Wolf has apologized to anyone offended by his actions and said he welcomes a review by Kansas state medical authorities.
But he also happily embraces confrontation. In the eastern Kansas town of Emporia last week, Wolf buttonholed Roberts during a walking tour, challenging him to a debate in a spat captured by local media. “This is not the time,” Roberts told Wolf before walking away. “We have a regularly scheduled event.”
Wolf said he met with Obama in 2010 during a trip to Kansas City. The president’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a Kansan. Obama’s great-great-
grandfather, Thomas Creekmore McCurry, is Wolf’s great-grandfather.
“I’ve looked him in the eye, and I’ve told him he’s wrong,” Wolf told the crowd at the Copper Kettle here in Eureka. He called it the first “family rivalry on the national political stage.”
Wolf called his relative “the worst president in history” and alleged that because of his past — he has been a presence on Fox News since realizing that he is related to Obama — he has been harassed by the Internal Revenue Service.
But, he said, he proved victorious.
“At the end of the day the IRS had to pay an interest penalty to us,” Wolf told the crowd. “Can I get an Amen on that?”
“Amen!” the crowd roared.