The Republican primary between incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and his primary challenger Milton Wolf, a doctor and distant cousin to President Barack Obama, may not be the most hotly contested GOP primary, but it is shaping up to be one of the most peculiar midterm contests of 2014.
Roberts, an established Washington politician, has had to distance himself from the Capitol and move to the right to keep up with Wolf, who has drawn similarities between Obama and some of the most infamous villains from World War II. But the race has taken a strange turn.
First there was the news that Roberts, a three-term senator, doesn't even live in the state anymore. Instead, he listed his address on his voter file as that of two prominent political donors. He joked he was crashing on a recliner when he made his voyages back to the state he represents. He was paying $300 a month in rent, according to the New York Times story. His poll numbers began to droop and Wolf’s campaign, while still relatively obscure, began picking up steam.
That was before Sunday when the Topeka Kansas-Journal published a story alleging Wolf placed several X-rays of a bullet-ridden skull and other injured bodies on his Facebook page in 2010.
“[He] participated in online commentary layered with macabre jokes and descriptions of carnage,” the newspaper wrote of its investigation.
In one instance, referring to an X-ray of a patient whose head was blown apart by a gun, Wolf wrote “one of my all-time favorites from my residency days there was a pretty active ‘knife and gun club’ at Truman Medical Center. What kind of gun blows somebody’s head completely off? I’ve got to get one of those.”
According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Truman Medical Centers did not give Wolf permission to post those photos, but it did not appear that Wolf had broken any privacy laws.
“We can say that no one within Truman Medical Centers would have or could have given permission for a physician or anyone associated with the hospital to post an image, diagnostic or otherwise, to a personal social media page that includes patient information," a hospital spokesman told the newspaper.
Wolf has apologized for posting the images, although he contends they were politically motivated attacks.
"Several years ago I made some comments about a few of these X-ray images that were insensitive to the seriousness of what the x-ray images revealed," Wolf said in a statement. "Soon thereafter, I removed those X-ray images and comments, again several years ago. For them to be published in a much more public context now, by a political adversary who would rather declare war on doctors than answer serious questions that Kansans have, is truly sad."
Political observers in the state note that the wackiness in this Kansas Senate race is unusual.
“We are in a bizarre world here in Kansas,” says Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “Most of the races don’t get much attention.”
But this contest is different. Like many others in the country, it is a microcosm of the bitter fight raging between the tea party and incumbent Republicans which has taken out Senate fixtures before. The race has drawn constant comparisons to the 2012 contest in Indiana between state treasurer Richard Mourdock and established Sen. Richard Lugar, who also was found to be living outside his state.
Yet, it’s more than that. This race reveals a Kansas with a choice between two candidates. One is politically well-connected and so much a member of the inner circle that he has literally cut ties to his home. The other poses a different set of liabilities. Wolf is an outsider, yes, but with a small Washington Rolodex comes political inexperience, missteps and an unknown commodity.
“On the surface it looks like Pat Roberts would be the ideal candidate to be knocked off by a tea party candidate,” says Loomis. “But, Milton Wolf is a joke. All this stuff about violating his patient's privacy. He is so fringy that even the conservatives in Kansas are walking away.”
For now the only guarantee is that a messy and peculiar primary race will continue to unfurl as each candidate amasses battle scars and bruises. But no matter how messy, how crazy the race gets, no one expects Kansas to wind up in Democratic control. Since the 1930s, both of the Senate seats in Kansas have been held by the GOP and an out-of-state address and graphic X-rays won’t change that.