Throughout this election season, KCUR will bring you AdWatch, a series evaluating the words and images filling the airwaves aimed at Missouri and Kansas voters.
The hotly contested Republican race for U.S. Senator from Kansas, where incumbent Pat Roberts and challenger Milton Wolf have turned their sights squarely on one another, has brought a slew of ads to the Kansas airwaves.
Wolf and Roberts went negative early, and their latest ads reprise some old charges. Wolf has consistently questioned Roberts’ residency in Kansas, a question ultimately decided in Roberts' favor by a state election review board. Roberts, meanwhile, has run ads challenging Wolf"s professional conduct as a physician, including Wolf's posting of X-ray images and commentary on his personal Facebook page, a matter now under an ethics investigation by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts. But the new material in each spot centers on how the candidate’s opponent has voted … or hasn't.
The Wolf campaign ad shows a Pat Roberts lookalike sitting in a recliner on a putting green watching television, part of the ongoing claim that the senator’s only in-state address is a rented room in a supporter’s golf-side home in Dodge City. The meat of the ad’s allegations appears on the screen, and an announcer intones some of the votes Roberts cast during his 33 years in Congress.
"At his real home in Washington, Roberts voted for Kathleen Sibelius," the announcer says.
That’s true; Roberts (along with then-Sen. Sam Brownback and seven other Republicans) voted to confirm his home-state governor as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
"...eleven debt ceiling increases," the announcer continues.
That’s also factually true, but maybe a little misleading. Of the eleven votes given in the ad’s fine print spanning Roberts’ House and senate careers as early as 1996, some were nearly unanimous; many were party-line votes where Roberts voted with Senate’s most conservative members at the time as part of a Republican majority. And what the ad doesn’t say is that economists would argue many of those votes to raise the statutory debt limit were necessary to keep the economy from collapsing.
But perhaps the most contentious claim is in the last vote mentioned, alongside an image of President Barack Obama.
"... Obama's fiscal cliff tax hike," the announcer concludes.
That compromise bill, approved 89 to 8 in the Senate on New Year’s Day, 2013, actually prevented automatic tax increases from kicking in for most Americans, making permanent the tax cuts of the George W. Bush administration.
It did increase taxes for families making $450,000 a year — from 35 percent to 39.6 percent — that’s less than the top half of a percent of Americans. That’s all according to the CNN story cited in the ad’s fine print, for those who bother to check. Still, Wolf’s campaign spokesperson said this week that in each of the votes mentioned in the ad, Wolf would have voted "no."
The commercial released the same day last week from Sen. Roberts’ camp attacks a different kind of voting record on Wolf’s part. This ad, too, reprises old charges about Wolf’s ethics.
"He was also hiding something else," the ad claims. "Twenty-eight missed elections."
As you can see in the ad, a long list of dates scrolls up the screen next to a picture of Wolf, his flag lapel pin changed to a sticker that says “I Didn’t Vote.”
Actually only 23 complete dates are visible on the screen, even when you watch it in slow-motion, but the Roberts campaign sent KCUR what it says is a list of 28 elections in which Johnson County elections records show Wolf did not vote.
It appears to be true that Wolf did not vote in those elections. As the ad says, most were for things like Shawnee Mission school board seats, water district commissioners, community college trustees.
Wolf also apparently missed some primary and general state elections during that period, but Johnson County records also show he did go to the polls 14 times since 1996. (You can see Wolf's voting record here.)
According to records online at the Secretary of State’s office, Roberts voted 32 times in the same period, including many municipal and local elections. Since 2002, most of those votes have been cast by mail under the state’s advance voting method. It’s hard to tell how many he missed because Ford County’s online records are less complete, but a spokesperson acknowledged Roberts may have missed a few minor elections, too, but said his record was “a hell of a lot better than Wolf’s.” (You can see Robert's voting record here.)
Wolf’s spokesperson had no comment about the accuracy of the ad’s claims but notes that Wolf was in medical school, then in a residency, then raising a family during that time period. Which perhaps just goes to show that facts, whether about votes in Congress or about votes at the polling place, can be true but may not tell the whole story.
Kansans will cast their votes in the primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 5.