Sen. Pat Roberts, the blunt-speaking Kansan who worked closely with Democrats on helping the nation’s farmers and protecting food stamps for millions of low-income Americans, announced Friday that he would not seek reelection in 2020.
Roberts, 82, who had conferred with his family over the holidays, said at a news conference in Manhattan, Kan., “I am announcing that I will serve the remainder of this term. However, I will not be a candidate in 2020 for a fifth Senate term.”
Roberts’ plans to retire come just a few weeks after Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, another longtime GOP senator known for bipartisanship, said he would not seek reelection.
Roberts recently shepherded an $867-billion farm bill into law, with the measure securing the backing of all Senate Democrats, a remarkable feat in a fractious Congress. The legislation allocates billions of dollars in subsidies to American farmers, legalizes hemp, bolsters farmers markets and rejects stricter limits on food stamps pushed by House Republicans.
Conservatives were unhappy with the bill’s provisions on food stamps, and the Trump administration had signaled its intention to cut them without approval from Congress.
Republicans will be favored to hold Roberts’ seat as Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in Kansas since 1932.
Republicans close to Senate leaders expressed strong interest Friday in the prospect of trying to convince Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo to run for the open seat. As a former congressman from Kansas and a staunch ally of President Trump, the Republicans reasoned, Pompeo would have the potential to clear the GOP field and spare the party a potentially messy primary fight.
It was unclear, however, whether Pompeo would have any interest. He has shown no public signs of wanting to leave his current post. The Republicans who mentioned Pompeo spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly relay their perspective on the race.
Other names that have surfaced as GOP possibilities include Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump ally who lost the race for governor last year; Rep. Roger Marshall; and Gov. Jeff Colyer, whom Kobach defeated in the gubernatorial primary.
The state, however, has undergone a political change in recent months, electing Democrat Laura Kelly governor over Kobach. Since then, several female Republican state lawmakers have switched parties in frustration with Trump and the GOP.
In 2014, Roberts faced his first serious electoral test since arriving in the Senate. Milton Wolf, a doctor and distant relative of Barack Obama who was active in the tea party movement, mounted a Republican primary challenge against Roberts. He criticized Roberts for voting to increase the debt limit while failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and for seeking a fourth term when he had pledged to serve just two.
“Our party was supposed to stand up for limited government and lower taxes,” Wolf said when announcing his long-shot campaign. “Our party failed.”
Roberts was slow to build his 2014 campaign, and only defeated Wolf by 7 percentage points — a smaller margin than polls or party strategists expected, after a campaign that revealed the senator no longer owned a home in Kansas.
That emboldened Democrats, whose own candidate for Senate quit the race and endorsed Greg Orman, a businessman running as an independent. National Republicans swooped in to help Roberts, pushing him to a 10-point victory — the smallest winning margin for any Kansas senator in 40 years, but enough to put him back in the Senate.
Weigel and Sullivan write for the Washington Post.