Time to call it a career: Pat Roberts should retire from the Senate in 2020

VIDEO: Kansas Congressional delegation wishes Bob Dole happy 92nd birthday

Former Sen. Bob Dole receives birthday greetings from Sens. Pat Roberts, Jerry Moran and Reps. Mike Pompeo, Lynn Jenkins, Tim Huelskamp and Kevin Yoder. (Courtesy of Sen. Roberts' office)
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Former Sen. Bob Dole receives birthday greetings from Sens. Pat Roberts, Jerry Moran and Reps. Mike Pompeo, Lynn Jenkins, Tim Huelskamp and Kevin Yoder. (Courtesy of Sen. Roberts' office)

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas has a tough, important decision to make.

Roberts’ seat will be on the ballot in 2020. The Republican must decide if he will seek a fifth term in the Senate, possibly extending a political career that stretches back to 1980.

Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom already has voiced an interest in running for the Senate as a Democrat. Other candidates, including some Republicans, are thinking about campaigns.

It’s time for Roberts to step aside to allow other qualified candidates to seek the office.

This is not an easy decision. Pat Roberts has served his state for almost four decades, first as a member of the House and then in the Senate. Broadly speaking, he has done an effective job representing the interests of his constituents.

He has been a leading voice for agricultural interests in Kansas and the country. Just this month, Roberts pushed a new $867 billion farm bill through the Congress.

But not everyone was happy with that outcome. In many ways, the farm bill remains a relic of the Great Depression — an increasingly rickety edifice of subsidies and programs designed to insulate some farmers, though not all, from the up-and-down swings of a private market.

Roberts, by training and inclination, is wedded to that traditional farm bill approach. “This is no time for a revolutionary farm bill,” he said just a few weeks ago.

Perhaps. But the 21st century will demand fresher ideas — not just on farm policy, but on trade, immigration, taxation, spending, defense and other national challenges. Roberts isn’t the senator who will provide those new ideas.

This isn’t a matter of the senator’s age, although Roberts will be 84 years old in 2020. It’s much more about Roberts’ four decades of service in the House and Senate, a long tenure that makes it difficult for him to see things in a different way.

Congressional dysfunction has grown dramatically during Roberts’ time in office. Returning him to Washington would not change that dynamic in any significant way.

Many Kansans are also disappointed with Roberts’ increasingly predictable partisanship. He was much more independent in his early years in the Senate; now, except for trade policy and a few other matters, he largely follows the party line and President Donald Trump.

His Kansas residence was an issue in 2014. In 2016, he bought a house in Topeka — a decision that may not end questions about the senator’s real home.

Kansans deserve better in 2020. New candidates could deliver.

The options, of course, aren’t limited to Democrats. Outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer, Rep. Roger Marshall, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Rep. Kevin Yoder have all been mentioned as potential GOP competitors for the Senate seat. Others will step forward if Roberts forgoes the race.

Roberts should make his re-election decision quickly — and make it public. Kansans deserve a full debate on important issues facing the state and the nation, and that conversation should start in 2019.

Just a few days ago, Roberts’ Republican colleague, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, announced his decision to leave the Senate in 2020. “I’ve had my turn,” Alexander told the New York Times.

Sen. Pat Roberts has had his turn, too. It’s time to give other candidates a chance to earn the seat, which belongs to the people, and no one person.