Pat Roberts finds himself, after decades on Capitol Hill, in the first serious challenge of his political career.
At 78, he’s fighting not just 45-year-old independent candidate Greg Orman, but the perception that he has been at the game too long.
It doesn’t help that his legislative win-loss record — not easily measured simply by bills that become law — makes for a bit of a mixed bag.
His hallmark Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 deregulated agriculture for the first time since the Great Depression, but it failed to transition farmers off subsidies as intended.
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His stint at the head of the prestigious Senate Intelligence Committee during the Iraq War was marred by vicious partisan sniping.
He secured a state-of-the-art research facility for his alma mater, Kansas State University, in 2008 but voted down $400 million in federal funding for the project six years later.
“Even if Roberts had a grand legacy to point to, I don’t think that it’s valued in the same way that it was maybe a decade ago,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. “Voters hold Congress in such low regard that when you talk about the things you’ve done in Congress, I don’t think people value it as much.”
Of 466 pieces of legislation Roberts has sponsored since entering Congress in 1981, eight have become law.
By comparison, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole sponsored 2,456 bills during his 35 years in Congress, 57 of which became law.
Another longtime Kansas Republican lawmaker, former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, sponsored 341 bills in her 17 years in the Senate. Nineteen became law.
Roberts’ supporters point out that a very small percentage of bills ever get enacted. They say much of what Roberts has done in Congress — from winning new missions for Kansas military bases to saving rural Kansas hospitals from closure — took place behind the scenes or through negotiations and didn’t necessarily come in the form of legislation with his name on it.
“Pat Roberts is a workhorse in the Senate, and he’s worked tirelessly to deliver conservative results for Kansas,” Corry Bliss, Roberts’ campaign manager, said in a statement.
A Washington career
Born in Topeka, Roberts served as a captain in the Marine Corps and worked as a newspaper publisher before launching his congressional career in 1967 as an aide to Kansas Sen. Frank Carlson. Two years later, he became administrative assistant to Rep. Keith Sebelius, the Republican congressman who represented Kansas’ sprawling “Big First” district.
In 1980, when Sebelius retired, Roberts ran to replace him. He won a three-way Republican primary with 56 percent of the vote and went on to easy victory in the general election.
Roberts soon cultivated a reputation as a hard-working, moderate lawmaker who had a good rapport with Democrats as well as Republicans. Renowned on Capitol Hill for his quirky sense of humor, he often cracked a joke to break the tension during hearings or debates.
“When things were frustrating, he had a way of getting everyone settled down and refocused,” said Jim Walsh, a former Republican congressman from New York who served with Roberts on the House Agriculture Committee. “He was always seen as a very thoughtful person who took a very measured approach to the legislation.”
Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Wichita, remembers Roberts as a pragmatic conservative who saw the value of compromise in politics.
“He wasn’t an ideological conservative,” Glickman said. “That was never Pat.”
Glickman said he worked closely with Roberts on agriculture and rural legislation as a lawmaker in the 1980s and ’90s and then as agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton.
“He was always amenable to work things out,” Glickman said. “It was always, ‘How are we going to get things done?’”
Farming and war
The highpoint of Roberts’ leadership in the House came with the passage of the Freedom to Farm Act in 1996, a bipartisan bill that ended government controls on production and phased out direct subsidies for farmers. It also cut the food stamp program by $26 billion over six years.
But within a few years, even Roberts had to admit that the Freedom to Farm Act “didn’t work out as anybody would have hoped.”
When prices dropped in 1998, Congress ended up providing billions in emergency payments to bail farmers out. By 2000, farmers were receiving almost half their net income from subsidies.
“Politics is usually the art of what is possible, and I think that’s what that bill was,” Walsh said.
After Roberts won election to the Senate in 1996, he shifted his leadership focus from farming to security.
In January 2003, just months before the United States invaded Iraq, Roberts became chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It was a prestigious job that boosted his national profile even as it plunged him into a maelstrom of partisan conflict.
Critics accused Roberts of taking orders and talking points from the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“He walked that line of Bush-Cheney on weapons of mass destruction, and he sang the Bush-Cheney line and led the chorus,” said Dick Bond, a moderate former Republican president of the Kansas Senate who has endorsed Roberts’ opponent. “In retrospect, it looks like a horrible mistake.”
Angry Democrats assailed Roberts for stalling investigations of prewar intelligence failures and treatment of suspected terrorists. They briefly shut down the Senate in symbolic protest over Roberts’ handling of the probes.
Back in Kansas, the controversy barely registered.
Steve Cloud, a former Republican national committeeman from Lenexa, remembers getting a kick out of watching a Kansas senator talk about foreign policy and national security on the Sunday morning talk shows. But it wasn’t clear to him that Roberts’ work on the Intelligence Committee was doing specific good for Kansas.
“People in Kansas, they feel pretty secure in Kansas. The bad guys have got to go across a lot of states to get to Kansas,” Cloud said. “I think he worked hard on it, but the question rises up: Did the work on the Intelligence Committee create more votes for him?”
Roberts’ term as chairman ended in 2006, when Democrats took over the Senate.
By late 2013, it was clear Roberts wouldn’t necessarily coast to a fourth Senate term. Tea party candidate Milton Wolf mounted a fierce primary challenge that used the senator’s decades in Washington against him.
Wolf attacked Roberts for spending too much time in Washington and accused him of being out of touch with constituents. The senator’s voting record and public statements — already trending more conservative — tacked hard to the right.
The Club for Growth, a conservative political action group, gave Roberts a rating of 84 percent last year, ranking him the 19th most conservative member of the 100-person Senate, based on his voting record. That’s far below Ted Cruz of Texas, who ranked first with 100 percent, but higher than Roberts’ Kansas colleague, Sen. Jerry Moran, who received a 75 percent rating.
Roberts’ lifetime score by Club for Growth is 74 percent.
Roberts now tends to gather co-sponsors primarily from his side of the aisle. Just two of the senator’s 18 bills and resolutions in 2013 had both Democratic and Republican co-sponsors.
He voted against the farm bill. He voted against a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled, even after his mentor, Dole, personally asked him to support it. He voted against a $1 trillion spending bill that included $400 million for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at K-State, a pet project he had championed for years.
“It gives me no pleasure to vote against a bill that includes an important project into which I have put my heart and soul and many hours of work,” Roberts said in a statement explaining his rejection of the spending bill. “But that vote was necessary to send a signal we can no longer afford unchecked spending as usual.”
Some longtime Republican activists in Kansas were taken aback, especially by what they saw as a personal insult to Dole.
“That broke my heart,” said Dennis Jones, a former state Republican chairman in Kansas. “Bob Dole did so much for Kansas and so much for America — and, quite frankly, for Pat Roberts — that he could have done that for Bob Dole.”
Jones said he and other moderate Kansas Republicans also were shocked when Roberts was among the first to call for the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius as health and human services secretary after the botched Obamacare rollout last year.
Roberts is a longtime family friend of Sebelius, the daughter-in-law of his old boss, Keith Sebelius.
“That someone I’ve always considered to be the consummate gentleman would go to that level to personally attack someone whose family gave him his start, I thought that was sad,” Jones said.
Jones said he supported Roberts when he ran for Sebelius’ seat in 1980 and in every election after that.
“I thought perhaps he would be elevated to the stature of a Frank Carlson or a Bob Dole in Kansas political history,” Jones said.
Now he isn’t so sure that Roberts belongs in the same category as those two senators. He says he hardly recognizes Roberts now.
“It’s too bad that we don’t have the old Pat Roberts, who believed in the future, who believed in good things to come,” Jones said. “It seems like now the Republican Party and Pat by necessity aren’t for anything.”
Roberts built his career in a different era, when making deals across the aisle was part of the legislative art and a long tenure in Congress was an asset, not an albatross, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.
“Pat Roberts is not in trouble because of ideology or because of his votes,” Rackaway said. “Pat Roberts just has the bad luck to be up for re-election in a year that anti-incumbency feeling is strong enough that it’s pushing everyone out the door.”
To reach Lindsay Wise, call 202-383-6007 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @lindsaywise.
Roberts’ legislative legacy
The eight bills Sen. Pat Roberts filed and then successfully ushered through Congress to the president’s desk ranged from minor resolutions to a historic but controversial farm bill:
▪ Three resolutions that designated names for federal buildings: a post office in Prairie Village; a courthouse in Kansas City, Kan.; and an agricultural research center in Nebraska.
▪ Legislation in 1986 establishing the Dwight D. Eisenhower Centennial Commission to mark 100 years since the former president’s birth.
▪ A 2006 bill authorizing funding to divert flood flows from the Little Arkansas River into the Equus Beds Aquifer.
▪ A bill extending the deadline for a bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks from 18 to 20 months and earmarking $1 million for commission activities.
▪ Legislation to help farmers and ranchers confidentially resolve disputes involving farm loans, conservation programs, pesticides and other issues.
▪ The Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, which lifted government-imposed restrictions on production and phased out direct subsidies. It also cut the food stamp program by $26 billion over six years.
The second of two profiles of Kansas candidates for the U.S. Senate: independent Greg Orman.