Wolf comes with all of the outsider bona fides that Tea Party organizations look for: success in private business, no political experience and an extreme vocabulary that borders on inflammatory. The fact Wolf is a physician gives him a legitimate voice in opposing Obamacare, and his distant relation to the president likely makes Obama detractors giddy. Taking on the incumbent Republican in Kansas with the highest approval rating in Pat Roberts is tough enough, even if Roberts' numbers are below 50 percent and suggest electoral vulnerability. But Wolf has not been able to communicate that sense of Roberts' vulnerability to donors: Wolf took in less than a quarter million dollars from donors in the fourth quarter of 2013, just more than one-third of Roberts' haul. And challengers who unseat incumbents generally must outraise their in-office targets by a factor of 2-1 to merely be competitive.
Last week showed real weakness in Wolf's campaign: an unpolished and unprofessional communication style. Professional campaigners spend significant time training candidates in saying the right thing and scrubbing their personal behaviors to ensure they do not get the campaign off-message. Wolf, a physician, posted patients' X-rays on Facebook wall and made inappropriate comments about them. While not as patently damaging as Todd Akin, Christine O'Donnell or Richard Mourdock, they are enough to question Wolf's judgment, fitness and ability to run an on-message campaign through the primary to capitalize on the one piece of opposition research they have released: Roberts' brief return trips to Kansas.
The common thread between O'Donnell and Wolf is that neither was an experienced candidate, and thus prone to gaffes. Even Mourdock, an experienced candidate, was a five-time loser before winning a low-profile statewide seat in Indiana. Initial success in primaries where less than 15 percent of the electorate vote is fine, but winning a statewide general election is much different. Wolf might repeat O'Donnell's fate: win the primary, implode in the general election and hand what was a safe Republican seat to Democrats. Chad Taylor's candidacy is certainly indicative of the strategy: Taylor could whip Wolf in a general race, but would tilt at windmills against Roberts.
Despite efforts to convince voters a complete reset of Washington is in order starting with the people elected, voters do not trust the loose cannon nature of outside candidates. As a result, the usual outcome of elections they contest is a hard-fought and divisive primary leading to embarrassing defeats in November. Wolf and his untested brethren give movement conservatives hope that they can lead a revolution of outsiders in Washington. If the outsiders they want to elect are Democrats, then they're right. If not, then the lessons they need might be in the very candidates they want to expel.
Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.