Kansas Sen. Roberts Announces
Retirement; Can Seat Stay With GOP?

By Jim Ellis

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R)

Jan. 8, 2018 — Veteran Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R), who will turn 84 years of age before the next election, announced last Friday that he will not seek re-election to a fifth term in 2020. He becomes the second Senate incumbent to announce his retirement effective 2021, following Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander (R) who made his decision public just before Christmas.

In 2014, Sen. Roberts faced a competitive election against Independent Greg Orman who appeared to coalesce the anti-Roberts vote when Democrat Chad Taylor withdrew from the race because the latter man knew that the senator was certain to win a three-way contest.

With early October polls finding Orman leading Sen. Roberts by as many as 10 percentage points, the veteran Kansas office holder pulled out all of the stops to rebound with a 53-43 percent win. The 2014 Republican wave helped Roberts sweep to victory, overcoming what proved to be largely inaccurate polling along the way.

Pat Roberts was originally elected to Congress in 1980, winning the western 1st District, a seat he would hold for eight terms before claiming an open Senate position in 1996. At the end of the current term he will conclude 40 years of congressional service.

Since 1968, a Kansas Senate seat has only come open five times. Already, the list of potential candidates for the 2020 incumbent-less contest is long.

For the Republicans, second-term western Kansas Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Great Bend), who unseated then-Rep. Tim Huelskamp in the 2016 Republican primary and then easily won subsequent general elections, has said for weeks that he would be interested in launching a Senate campaign if Roberts were to retire. Former congressman Kevin Yoder (R), who was defeated in the 2018 election after serving four terms is another name that is surfacing in the early post-retirement announcement period.

Former governor Jeff Colyer, who lost a close 2018 primary to then-Secretary of State Kris Kobach (343 votes from an electorate of 317,165 cast ballots), is another individual who is being mentioned as a potential Senate candidate. So is Kobach, himself, but he would begin in a weakened position after losing what should have been a safe race for governor.

Other Republicans who apparently have an interest in running are oil businessman and 2018 lieutenant governor candidate Wink Hartman, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, and American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, is also being speculated upon as a potential GOP candidate.

After Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) victory in the 2018 statewide race, the Democratic nomination will be taken more seriously for the 2020 open Senate campaign. Kelly, then a Topeka state senator, defeated Kobach 48-43 percent, with Orman taking 6.5 percent as an Independent candidate. Originally, it appeared Orman’s presence, campaigning from the left, would have helped the Republicans, but Kelly was still able to win even though she did so with only a plurality.

Though Gov. Kelly would certainly be a formidable Democratic Senate candidate, she is unlikely to run for a different office so quickly. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Roeland Park/ Kansas City) will also be prominently mentioned, but it is unclear whether she would want to exit the House after just one term. Additionally, she might have a difficult time selling herself in the remainder of the state, which is considerably more conservative than the district she just claimed in November.

Another appearance from Orman also cannot be dismissed. Though he upset the Democratic establishment when refusing to exit the governor’s race last year, he still could return as an Independent — but running as a Democrat remains within the realm of possibility.

The Roberts’ seat should stay in Republican hands, assuming the party can unify behind the eventual nominee. But, with the split between Kansas conservatives and moderates being among the most severe in the nation, as was evidenced in the last governor’s race, there is no guarantee that the right-of-center rank and file and party leadership will come together. Therefore, the 2020 open Kansas Senate race will be a campaign to watch.

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