Government & Politics

Pat Roberts’ retirement sets off ‘dominoes’ in Kansas as 2020 promises big changes

No matter who Kansas voters send to Washington in 2020 to replace the retiring Sen. Pat Roberts, their state’s Congressional delegation will be one of Capitol Hill’s least experienced.

The election— a year away this month— will bring major generational change as Roberts, the 83-year-old Republican, exits after four decades in Congress. His departure creates an opportunity for an ideological shift, but it’ll also leave a major experience gap in a place where seniority often determines influence.

To appreciate the scope of the coming change, consider this: Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, will be the only member of the state’s delegation with more than four years of experience in Congress after the election. The transition will also continue the churning in a House delegation where turnover was once rare.

The longest-serving member of Congress in state history, Roberts used his clout to steer federal projects to the region and ensure Kansas crops were treated as a priority in farm legislation.

His longevity and the stability of his staff— he had only two chiefs of staff during his career— gave Kansas business interest groups a reliable partner to advance their agendas. They’re not sure what comes next.

“That is going to be huge shoes to fill. Quite frankly, they won’t be filled,” said Ryan Flickner, senior director of the Kansas Farm Bureau.

Roberts’ retirement has triggered a domino effect as some of the state’s most prominent politicians compete to replace him in the U.S. Senate. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, declared his candidacy in September, creating another open-seat race in Kansas’ 1st congressional district.

Those federal vacancies have created openings for newcomers in Topeka as state lawmakers pursue both Roberts’ and Marshall’s seats.

“You can call it dominoes or whatever. But you’re taking the Roberts domino off the board… so there is a substantial change,” said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.

Loomis compared 2020 to 1996, when Sen. Nancy Kassebaum retired and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole gave up his seat to focus on his presidential campaign, creating a rare double vacancy.

“If you want to look at an earthquake in Kansas politics, that was a 7.0,” Loomis said. “This is a 4.5 or a 5.”

Marshall, 59, will face off against Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, 66, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, 53, and former Johnson County Commissioner Dave Lindstrom, 64, in the crowded GOP primary.

The Democratic establishment has already begun to coalesce around state Sen. Barbara Bollier, 61, a Johnson County lawmaker who switched parties last year.

Bollier has the backing of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Gov. Laura Kelly and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee after joining the race last month. A victory would represent a tectonic shift in the state’s politics. No Democrat has won a Senate race in Kansas since the 1930s.

All of the candidates represent generational change, but Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said most of the Republicans would likely vote much as Roberts did. The exception is Kobach, a hardline conservative on immigration issues and a cable news mainstay, who would be a striking contrast to the farm-focused Roberts.

Moran, who has been in Congress since 1997, will be poised for a chairmanship if Republicans maintain control in the Senate. Overall, however, the delegation will have limited clout regardless of which party is in power. Even if incumbents retain their seats, the group will lack seniority—a stark change.

From 1963 until 2011, just four people represented the “Big First,” the giant 63-county district spread across northern and western Kansas: Dole, Keith Sebelius, Roberts and Moran.

But Marshall’s replacement will be its third representative in a decade. Other House seats have turned over as well, with Mike Pompeo’s elevation to the Trump cabinet, Lynn Jenkins’ retirement and Kevin Yoder’s re-election defeat in 2018.

“It’s been amazing, the turnover. We don’t need term limits, I guess. I’m a big proponent of them, but it’s almost like we’ve had self-imposed term limits,” said Marshall, the most experienced member of the House delegation in only his second term. He ranks 318th in seniority in the 435-member House.

The four members in the U.S. House representing Kansas have collectively around seven years of experience in the chamber.

“That’s enough time to learn the ropes but not much else,” said Travis Smith, Yoder’s former chief of staff.

“In the bygone era of ‘pork projects’ this could be more of a substantial loss to the state interests. Even without formal earmarks, it could still be a blow even just with general ‘state clout’ at the Federal level,” Smith said in an email.

Marshall said the founding fathers intended “for there to be a change in the guard, new leaders stepping forward,” but he also said that the delegation’s lack of seniority in the House and the loss of Yoder’s spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee hamper the state’s ability to influence policy in the short term.

“Seniority impacts the committee assignments. And of course the chance to get a gavel in your hand, to be the ranking member or committee chairman, is very dependent on seniority. I’m not sure there’s any person with a gavel in their hand who’s been here less than 10 years,” he said.

Now Marshall is looking to leave the House for the Senate, which means the state will have at least one new member in the next Congress and even less seniority in the chamber.

There could be additional newcomers if freshman Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids and Republican Rep. Steve Watkins don’t survive their first re-election contests.

Davids’ seat in a GOP-leaning district is a top target for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2020. Watkins, who narrowly won in 2018, faces a primary challenge from Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner.

“If Sharice wins, I think she’s probably there for a while,” Loomis said.

Davids’ ability to rise within her party’s ranks could be critical for the state’s ability to influence policy in the chamber if she retains her seat and Democrats maintain a majority in the House.

“Sharice is a first-term member. Certainly I think she’s done fine and she’s part of the majority, but a first-term member… doesn’t have a lot of clout,” Loomis said.

Davids said she hasn’t spent much time contemplating how her role in the delegation could expand in a second term.

“It’s an interesting thought experiment to go through,” Davids said. “But I feel like my role will be not too dissimilar from what my role is right now, which is to consistently be trying to reach out and have conversations with the other members of the delegation regardless of the composition, party makeup.”

After the recent turnover in the House, Kansas business groups are dreading the loss of Roberts in the Senate.

The Farm Bureau is still evaluating candidates, but Flickner said the group is looking “for a workhorse not a show horse” to back in the Senate race, a reference to a line former Gov. Jeff Colyer used against Kobach during last year’s gubernatorial primary.

Marshall’s pitch seems tailor-made to win agriculture groups’ support and ease concerns about a loss of stability post-Roberts.

“I think getting on the Senate Ag Committee has to be the priority for this next senator from Kansas. Since 1969 we’ve had a senator continuously serving on that Senate Ag Committee,” said Marshall, who noted his position on the House Agriculture Committee.

Marshall said he’s built strong relationships with federal agencies and other lawmakers that would carry over to the Senate.

“Like any business, relationships are very, very important. That’s what going to give Kansas the advantage: Me having strong relationships,” Marshall said.

Kobach’s campaign rejected the notion that lack of seniority would limit his influence.

“Influence in the Senate is not always based on seniority. Often it is based on the expertise of the senator,” Kobach campaign manager Steve Drake said in an email.

“Because of Secretary Kobach’s 15 years of experience as a professor of constitutional law, his expertise will give Kansas an influential voice on the judiciary committee,” Drake said. “His two decades of experience in border enforcement and immigration will give Kansas significant influence in those issues as well.”

Wagle, the only woman to serve as president of the Kansas Senate, said in an email that she has “never let roadblocks or presumed ‘seniority’ get in the way of getting things done for the voters and this will be no different. I have busted through glass-ceiling after glass-ceiling.”

Bollier said the key to gaining influence as a freshman senator would be her ability to work with members of both parties as she’s done in Topeka.

“Frankly, I think I’m the only candidate in this race who works across party lines,” Bollier said in an email.

“My concern is that some of the other candidates in this race have only ever been interested in working with their own party – and that mentality is exactly why Washington is so dysfunctional and why nothing ever gets done.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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