A Half Century Down, Just Two Years On Capitol Hill To Go For Kansas Sen. Roberts

Jan 4, 2019

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts has ended the talk — and there's been a lot of it — about his political future. The senior senator from Kansas announced in Manhattan Friday that he won’t be campaigning for a fifth term.

“I will serve the remainder of this term as your senator fighting for Kansas in these troubled times. However, I will not be a candidate in 2020,” Roberts told a gathering at the state Department of Agriculture, standing behind a podium decorated with a shock of wheat.

The 82-year-old Roberts has been in the Senate for 22 years after 16 years in the House representing the “Big First” district in western Kansas. Prior to running for office himself he worked for U.S. Sen. Frank Carlson and U.S. Rep. Keith Sebelius, both Kansas Republicans. 

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be the longest-serving member of Congress in our state’s history,” he said.

The setting for his retirement announcement was a deliberate choice by the lawmaker President Donald Trump has called “Farm Guy."

During his decades in Congress, Roberts worked on eight farm bills, massive pieces of legislation that put billions of dollars toward agriculture, forestry and food assistance programs. More than that, he was one of the main architects of those bills as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee (2015-present) and the House Agriculture Committee (1995-1997).

A year ago, Roberts demurred when asked about the number of farm bills he’s gotten to the finish line.

“Well, I don’t know if I’ve shepherded anything … let’s just say that I got the posse together and rode in the same direction," he quipped. 

The most recent farm bill was signed by the president in December after about a year of negotiations. Roberts said he was proud of it because he thinks it’ll help U.S. agriculture at a time of trade disputes, especially with China, and low crop prices.

“Everywhere, farmers, ranchers, growers and everybody within our food supply knew that we needed certainty and predictability in these uncertain times,” he told Harvest Public Media last month.

That Roberts announced his retirement plans in Manhattan is also significant as he helped corral billions of dollars to move the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility to Kansas State University, his alma mater. The NBAF is currently under construction, though it’s years behind and millions over the original schedule and budget.

Roberts came under fire from Democrats in 2005 for his handling of investigations into intelligence failures that they believed hastened the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He was serving a four-year stint as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time. 

The senator, as a number of his departing Congressional colleagues have done, lamented partisan divisions that he said, “threaten progress.” But he promised to continue to press on issues he sees as urgent, including national security, tax reform, trade, and implementation of the farm bill, for the remainder of his time in office.

“I intend to sprint to the finish line,” Roberts said Friday.

Despite scares from Tea Party Republican Milton Wolff in the 2014 primary and then independent Greg Orman in the general election that year, Roberts was 24-0 in his campaigns for federal office.

“I’m damn proud of that undefeated record,” he said.

In 2017, GovTrack ranked Roberts as the second most conservative senator

Accolades flowed in quickly Friday from conservative Republican admirers who could also be candidates to replace Roberts in the Senate: current 1st District Rep. Roger Marshall, recently unseated 3rd District Rep. Kevin Yoder, Gov. Jeff Colyer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and Kobach’s running mate in the 2018 governor’s race, Wink Hartman.

The Kansas Democratic Party immediately sent out an email blast soliciting  donations to help flip the seat and saying the results of this November’s elections prove Democrats can win statewide. Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom has already said he's considering running as a Democrat. 

Amy Jeffries is an editor for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @amyoverhere.

Harvest Public Media Editor Erica Hunzinger and Kansas News Service reporter Jim McLean and reporting fellow Nomin Ujiyediin contributed to this story.

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