Sen. Jerry Moran is in a unique position.
The Kansas Republican won his Senate seat in 2010, perhaps benefiting from the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s decision to stay out of what was a vigorously contested GOP primary against a fellow incumbent congressman. But as the current NRSC chairman, Moran is throwing his weight around on behalf of Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who is facing a primary challenge from Milton Wolf, a radiologist and distant cousin of President Obama.
The NRSC took a hands-off approach to GOP primaries in 2012, even where incumbents were running for re-election. But since Moran became NRSC chairman last year, the committee has assumed its traditional role of protecting incumbents and playing a role in primary contests. That could put Moran on the spot in Kansas.
The senator is up for re-election in 2016 and could find himself staring down the same collection of activist groups, based in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere — though not in Kansas — who are working to oust Roberts. The same goes for the Republican voters who end up in Wolf’s camp in the Aug. 5 primary. But Moran doesn’t appear worried.
In a brief interview with the Washington Examiner on Tuesday just off the Senate floor, the NRSC chairman said he expects Roberts to cruise to victory in the primary, while cautioning that there is not a noticeable Tea Party-GOP establishment split among Kansas Republicans that might exist elsewhere. Moran also questioned the power of the out-of-state groups who are supporting Wolf to move the needle. Here’s an edited transcript of the exchange:
The Washington Examiner: How is Sen. Roberts doing in his primary?
Moran: He’s doing very well. I have no doubt [that] Sen. Roberts will be the Republican nominee come August.
Examiner: Talk about Kansas Republican politics and what outsiders should understand. Is there an establishment-Tea Party divide among Kansas GOP primary voters?
Moran: Kansas is a solidly conservative state, so it’s perhaps a matter of degree. But there’s not a huge divide. The folks who come to a town hall meeting of mine, for example, often espouse very similar views to what somebody from [the] Tea Party would say. And the theme is, 'We want you to live within your means and we want you to abide by the Constitution.' Those are things that are broadly agreed to by most Kansans and certainly by nearly all Republicans. And, so that message from the folks that are described as Tea Party really isn’t significantly different from what, broadly, Kansans feel.
Examiner: Are you familiar with Dr. Wolf?
Moran: To my knowledge, I met Dr. Wolf once, and I met him during my own Senate campaign in 2010. To my knowledge, I’ve not had any conversation or contact with him since then.
Examiner: You had to fight hard to win your 2010 primary. What does that tell you about what Sen. Roberts needs to do for his primary?
Moran: It’s a matter of Pat being Pat — that he continues his efforts in visiting with Kansans, telling his story. Others of us understood that his efforts here in Washington, D.C., make a difference; that he brings a conservative kind of Kansas perspective to almost everything we deal with here. I think it’s just a matter of what you’d call a campaign that we see every couple years in our state in which you’re out having conversations with voters.
Examiner: Does the New York Times story about how much time Sen. Roberts has spent living in Kansas matter?
Moran: I don’t think that this is a significant issue at all. I don’t think the conversation that surrounded the story itself was very helpful. Lots of people said lots of things that added onto a story that doesn’t exist. I don’t think there’s Kansans that have the sense that Sen. Roberts isn’t a Kansan or has lost touch with our state. I just think a number of people answered questions poorly to the press and then it became a different story than it needed to be.
Examiner: Is Kansas used to seeing political advertising from out-of-state interests and could the outside groups advertising on behalf of Dr. Wolf impact the race, either helping him or turning off voters to his candidacy?
Moran: I don’t think we’re accustomed to outside money or advertising. That’s a pretty unusual thing in our state. It’s developed more over time. But still, I think people are generally uncomfortable with it, uncertain as to who is saying this and why they’re saying it. And we’re still a pretty old-fashioned state, in which voter contact, town hall meeting, handshake on Main Street, conversations at senior center, still matter significantly.
Examiner: Given that the NRSC did not get involved in your 2010 primary, is your participation in the primary this year on behalf of Roberts putting you in an awkward position?
Moran: Our overt effort — when you hear me say that we’re supporting someone, it’s somebody who is already a United States senator — that’s a primary responsibility of the NRSC. In other races, in races across the [country,] we’ve been trying to get people within the state to come together, to coalesce around a candidate. We’re not that overt in trying to influence the outcome of primaries. We want to bring people together in a state to let them do that.
Examiner: You’re up for re-election in 2016. Could your support for Roberts come back to haunt you in your own primary?
Moran: It’s a reminder to me that the time I spend with Kansans is important and that they need to know that the guy who is the chairman of the NRSC hasn’t forgotten who he is, where he comes from, and cares about the same things — shares the same values — as we do. So the only note that I make is, make certain that Kansans continue to know me, see me, understand me, that we have conversations, so that they can see for themselves that I haven’t gone to Washington, D.C., and become part of some establishment leadership group.