Politics

10.24.13

Obama’s Tea Party Cousin Takes Credit for Push Against Sebelius

Milton Wolf says his entrance into Kansas’s GOP Senate primary turned Sen. Pat Roberts against former ally Kathleen Sebelius, triggering a wave of calls for her resignation. Ben Jacobs reports.

Is President Obama’s Tea Party cousin the reason a number of prominent Republicans are demanding that Kathleen Sebelius resign?

In the past few days, a growing number of GOP officials have called on the health and human services secretary to step down. From Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), conservatives have been pushing for Sebelius’s resignation over the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov, the website that was supposed to allow users to browse the federal insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. But the movement was sparked by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) who called on the former Kansas governor to resign on October 11—just three days after Milton Wolf, a second cousin of Obama’s, announced a primary challenge to Roberts as a Tea Party candidate.

What was so surprising and news-making about Roberts’s demand for the secretary’s scalp is that the two have what the senator once called “a special relationship.” Roberts got his start in politics working for Sebelius’s father-in-law, Keith Sebelius, who was a six-term Republican congressman from western Kansas. When Keith Sebelius retired from the House, Roberts succeeded him. Roberts and Kathleen Sebelius worked together closely thereafter and had what University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis described as a “pretty cooperative” relationship. When Sebelius was nominated to run the Department of Health and Human Services, Roberts was a vocal advocate for her. While they aren’t “buddies,” Loomis said, they have been “politically respectful” of each other, with Sebelius taking pains in the past to squelch any talk that she might run for Senate against him.

“You cannot choose your family. But you can choose to rise up and stop your family from destroying America.”

But that cordial relationship is now gone, and Wolf, a 42-year-radiologist from suburban Kansas City, is taking credit. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Wolf said he didn’t “think it’s a coincidence that, after a decades-long relationship, three days after I announced my candidacy [Roberts] suddenly discovered that [Sebelius] is a disaster and has to go.” The three-term senator is directly responsible for Sebelius serving as health and human services secretary, Wolf said: “She’d not be there were it not for Senator Roberts.” He contrasted Roberts’s vote for Sebelius with “RINO Republicans, moderate Republicans,” such as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who voted against her confirmation.

Wolf’s campaign is focusing on his opposition to Obamacare and Obama, whom he describes as a president “who simply does not abide by the Constitution and does not understand American exceptionalism.” Although the two are second cousins, Wolf said: “You cannot choose your family. But you can choose to rise up and stop your family from destroying America.” The Tea Partier is less focused on foreign policy issues. Asked about the conflict in Syria, he said simply, “Today, I don’t have anything on Syria.”

The insurgent Republican faces an uphill battle against Roberts, who has served on Capitol Hill for more than 30 years. The senator has already locked up endorsements from every federal elected official and “has constantly worked hard to stay pretty far to the right,” said Loomis. Roberts even participated in Cruz’s quasi-filibuster in September, the most senior Republican to do so.

Still, the long relationship between the current Kansas senator and the former Kansas governor makes Roberts’s call on Sebelius to resign “somewhat surprising,” said Loomis. “Anything associated with Obama and Obamacare is going to be in the toilet [in Kansas]...but there is a kind of personal attack there that people did not expect from Roberts.”