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WASHINGTON -- Three-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts on Tuesday seized an early lead over tea party favorite Milton Wolf in Kansas' primary as four states kicked off a busy month of contests to settle the ballots for November's midterm elections.
Roberts held a 52 percent to 37 percent edge over Wolf, a radiologist and distant cousin of President Barack Obama, with just a handful of precincts reporting. Four Kansas counties ended voting later in the night.
The Kansas race pitted a mainstream Republican against an upstart who argued that the incumbent wasn't true to core conservative beliefs. It was one of the last, best chances for the tea party.
The GOP establishment blames the tea party for costing it Senate control in 2010 and 2012 as outside candidates stumbled in the general election. Republicans need to gain six seats to regain the Senate, and the party has taken no chances this election cycle, putting its full force behind incumbents and mainstream candidates.
Tuesday offered competitive primaries in Michigan, Missouri and Washington state. Businessman Dave Trott grabbed an early lead -- 65 percent to 35 percent -- over first-term Rep. Kerry Bentivolio in Michigan's 11th Congressional District, a reversal of the recent political order of tea partyers aiming to knock out an establishment favorite.
Despite Congress' abysmal approval ratings, only two incumbents have lost -- Republican Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Ralph Hall of Texas. If he stumbles, Bentivolio would be the third.
The four-state primary day launches a crowded stretch with Tennessee on Thursday, Hawaii on Saturday and Connecticut, Minnesota and Wisconsin next week. By month's end, voters will decide the Republican Senate nominee in a competitive race against Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska and the Democratic primary between Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
So far this year, the Senate's establishment is on a roll, with incumbents already prevailing in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi, though it took six-term Sen. Thad Cochran two tries before defeating Chris McDaniel, who is challenging the outcome.
Kansas, famous for sending moderate Republicans to Congress, holds Tuesday's marquee contest.
The 78-year-old Roberts, a conservative, has moved even farther right as he's faced a tough re-election. The senator, who backed the nomination of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to be secretary of Health and Human Services, was one of the first to call for her resignation after the disastrous launch of the health care website last October. Roberts also voted against a U.N. treaty on the rights of the disabled in December 2012 despite the appeals of former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who sat in a wheelchair in the well of the Senate.
Wolf argues that Roberts has spent too much time in Washington, owning a home in the nation's capital while merely renting in Kansas. Roberts didn't help his cause when he told a radio interviewer last month: "Every time I get an opponent -- uh, I mean, every time I get a chance -- I'm home."
In an interview on Topeka radio's WIBW NewsNow at Noon on Monday, Roberts said it was the "the height of absurdity" for people who want to replace him in Washington to criticize him for spending too much time there.
"You've got to go where the fight is," he said. "I have to work in Washington."
Wolf eagerly disavows the policies of his cousin Obama and casts himself as a pure conservative. He has the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund and several tea party groups.
But Wolf has been dogged by X-rays of gunshot victims that he posted on a Facebook page with humorous comments. Wolf acknowledged the mistake and has apologized, but Roberts has made an issue in campaign ads.
"Character counts, and in my primary race, we have tried to emphasize that in terms of facts about my opponent," Roberts said this week.
In one of the fiercest House GOP primaries, two-term Rep. Mike Pompeo grabbed a lead over Todd Tiahrt, who served eight terms in the House and was trying to return to Washington.
Two primaries in Michigan mark a turnabout from several years of widely heralded contests in which right-flank candidates have tried -- sometimes successfully -- to unseat Republican incumbents they perceive as not being conservative enough.
Just northwest of Detroit, Trott, a businessman involved in real estate finance and a member of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce Board of Trustees, challenged Bentivolio. The incumbent is often described as the "accidental" congressman, as he was elected in 2012 when former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter turned in fraudulent voter signatures for a ballot spot.
In the 3rd Congressional District in the southwest part of the state, Rep. Justin Amash, who has challenged the GOP leadership, took the lead over Brian Ellis, a 53-year-old Grand Rapids businessman who owns an investment advisory firm and serves on the school board.
Amash is popular among libertarians for his challenges to the National Security Agency's surveillance of Americans.
Five of Missouri's eight House members were expected to easily dispatch their underfunded challengers.
In Washington state, voters considered 12 candidates vying to replace 10-term Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican who is retiring. The two candidates who collect the most mail-in ballots advance to the general election, setting up what could be a Republican-versus-Republican contest in the heavily GOP district in central Washington.