OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) — Newt Gingrich stumped Friday for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, praising him as a strong conservative and touting his lengthy experience in Congress, even as the veteran Republican from Kansas faces criticism from a primary challenger who says Roberts is a career politician.
Gingrich, a former U.S. house speaker, helped Roberts open a campaign office in Overland Park, in the vote-rich Kansas City suburbs of Johnson County, which is home to 21 percent of the state's voters and is a key Republican — and tea party — stronghold. At least 150 people crammed into the narrow storefront space, interjecting with supportive comments as the two men spoke.
The event came a month after Dr. Milton Wolf, a Leawood radiologist, launched his campaign to challenge Roberts in the Republican primary in August 2014. Wolf is running as a tea party candidate, and though Roberts has strong ratings from conservative groups, Wolf has said the incumbent is not conservative enough.
Gingrich said Roberts is tough negotiator — and did so even when Gingrich was House speaker. But, Gingrich said, Roberts also knows how Congress operates and can work with people.
"The fact is, you have a tried conservative who has a proven record, who is very tough and who is an effective leader," Gingrich told reporters after the event. "I can't imagine somebody doing a dramatically better job than Pat Roberts, and I think Kansas would be giving up a lot if they gave up somebody who had this level of toughness and this level of experience."
As they spoke, Roberts and Gingrich were flanked by the incumbent's supporters, including Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer; state House Speaker Ray Merrick; Patricia Stoneking, president of the Kansas State Rifle Association; and Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. Both Gingrich and Roberts reminisced about their past service together in the House, where Gingrich was speaker from 1995 to 1999 and where Roberts served for 16 years before his election to the Senate in 1996.
Wolf spokesman Ben Hartman said, "Pat Roberts is playing to his base, which is other Washington career politicians."
So far, the only Democrat to publicly express an interest in the race is Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, who's formed an exploratory committee but not formally announced his intent to run. In Republican-leaning Kansas, no Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race since 1932.
Both Roberts and Gingrich strongly criticized the federal health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama, particularly over the troubled rollout of the federal government's website for online health insurance marketplaces. Roberts said he's fighting vigorously for conservative principles because the nation "is at a tipping point."
"This is no time to say retreat," Roberts told his supporters.
But Wolf has strongly criticized Roberts for voting to confirm former two-term Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as U.S. health and human services secretary in 2009. Roberts now is calling for her resignation over the rocky rollout of the federal government's website for online health insurance marketplaces under the new health care law.
Wolf's campaign Friday called on Roberts to publicly declare that it was wrong for him to vote to confirm Sebelius. Roberts noted that he's already said he regrets it.
Roberts' re-election campaign: http://robertsforsenate.com/home/
Wolf's campaign: http://www.miltonwolf.com/
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna .