Republican Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) is expected to announce Friday he will be retiring at the end of his term in 2020, giving Democrats a long-shot opportunity to pick up another seat in their bid to win back the Senate majority.
Roberts retirement has long been rumored in Washington. At 82, he has spent the greater part of the past 50 years in the Capitol Building, first as an aide to Kansas Republicans Frank Carlson and Keith Sebelius, before being elected to the House in 1980 and then to the Senate in 1996.
Once seen as a partisan for shielding George W. Bush’s Iraq war efforts from Senate investigations, more recently Roberts has been seen as one of the last remaining bipartisan dealmakers in the Senate. He pushed the farm bill through Congress — a massive agricultural subsidy and food aid legislative package that passed with historic support at the end of 2018.
But that legacy likely wouldn’t fare well in a Republican primary in Kansas, which has strong conservative roots. Roberts narrowly fended off a Tea Party challenge in 2014, and in the 2018 midterms, the Republican candidate for the top statewide race for governor was Kris Kobach, a right-wing anti-immigration hardliner who came under scrutiny for ties to white supremacist groups and had President Donald Trump’s endorsement. Kobach’s extremism ultimately handed the governorship to the Democrat Laura Kelly.
With Roberts likely out of the running, Democrats will undoubtedly be hoping for the same outcome in the 2020 Senate race.
In 2018, there is was a blue wave in Kansas — an otherwise conservative state
For the past decade, Kansas has been a failed experiment in conservatism; the state’s former Gov. Sam Brownback passed extreme tax cuts he said would jolt the state’s economy. Instead, they devastated revenues, plummeted the state’s bond rating, and forced the state legislature to make such severe cuts to social programs, public schools and state infrastructure that the state Supreme Court mandated they boost funding for schools.
To be sure, Kansas is still a conservative state. Since 1940, the state has only once voted for a Democratic president (it was in the 1964 election between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater). The last time the state voted for a Democrat in a Senate race was in 1932.
But as Vox’s Ella Nilsen explained, the state has more progressive roots than it gets credit for. Nilsen writes:
The rural, western part of Kansas is far more conservative and Trump-friendly. But the state gets more purple around major metropolitan areas and in eastern areas like the Third District, which includes parts of Kansas City.
In 2018, the state clearly reflected the national blue wave. Democrat Kelly beat out Kobach for governor, campaigning against the hardline anti-immigration rhetoric espoused by her opponent, as well as promising to invest in infrastructure, focus on public education and expand Medicaid. And in the House Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids, an attorney and former MMA fighter, unseated Republican Kevin Yoder in the Third Congressional District, running on a more progressive platform.
Democrats, currently in the Senate minority with 47 seats, have a much more favorable Senate map in 2020 than they did in 2018. Republicans will be defending 22 seats while Democrats will be protecting 12 — and in a presidential election year, when voter turnout is typically higher.
Roberts’s retirement gives Democrats a better opportunity to bring the blue wave back to Kansas.