Roberts is not ruling out another Senate run. But he has to pass the farm bill first.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas
Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas File photo

Sen. Pat Roberts will have to shepherd Congress’ farm bill to passage — and fast — if he wants to prove he’s still a viable candidate for Senate in 2020.

Roberts, 82, survived a primary challenge against a political newcomer in 2014 with less than 50 percent of vote. He needed a flood of national money to win his general election campaign.

It’s unlikely the Kansas Republican will be able to avoid another primary challenge in 2020 if he runs. And Kansas Democrats— who won the governor’s office and a congressional seat last week— may put up a serious candidate for the Senate seat for the first time in decades if they view Roberts as vulnerable

That’s why the farm bill matters.

Passage of the bill, which will reauthorize the country’s $867 billion food and agriculture programs for the next five years, offers a test of Roberts’ clout before he makes the final decision on another run in a state where agriculture is one of the main industries.

“Marines always take the hill,” Roberts told McClatchy in September. “You just want to know whether you want to take that next hill down the road. Let’s just get this one (the farm bill) done and the rest will take care of itself.”

Negotiations are furiously underway during the congressional break, as Republicans get one last shot as the House majority before Democrats take control in January. Congress is scheduled to reconvene Tuesday for a lame duck session that should last until mid-December.

Roberts and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, met with their Democratic counterparts at least once to discuss the bill in recent weeks and have been in frequent contact by phone. Their staffs are meeting all day every day to hammer out a deal, Roberts’ office said.

One of the main points of conflict between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill involves proposed reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Current law requires working age SNAP beneficiaries to register for work and accept a job if it is offered. It allows states to impose additional requirements.

The House bill, which passed without any Democratic support, would require adult beneficiaries to prove every month that they worked for 20 hours, participated in a work training program or qualified for an exemption. The proposed change could affect whether millions of Americans remain eligible for the program.

The work requirements have been championed by outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, who Roberts jokingly referred to as “Dr. No” because of Ryan’s tenure as Sam Brownback’s legislative aide in the Senate in the 1990s.

“This is not the time for a revolutionary farm bill. This is a time to provide farmers certainty and predictability,” Roberts said, warning against making the farm bill into a welfare reform bill.

Roberts said the Senate bill includes new oversight measures and encourages states to expand their work training programs. These measures will ensure the program’s integrity, but won’t cost the bill the Democratic votes it needs to pass the Senate, Roberts argued. The Senate currently has 51 Republicans, 47 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

“We’re coming in through the back door. We’re using different language, but our bill is far more comprehensive,” Roberts said.

“I know that there are those in the House who firmly believe why can’t we just take the House SNAP proposal … and pass the bill. Well, it’s not that simple. It just isn’t,” he said.

Roberts’ fellow Kansas Republican, Rep. Roger Marshall, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, is an outspoken supporter of requiring SNAP beneficiaries to work.

He noted that that Kansas already has enacted similar requirements and contended people in other states, such as California, have been freeloading off the program.

“I need the freeloader states to quit freeloading and close those loopholes,” Marshall told McClatchy in September. “If the Senate can prove to me a way that we’re moving in that direction of welfare to work, I’m willing to listen to it… Is there a compromise place in there? Yeah, I think there’s a compromise, but it has to go in that right direction.”

If Roberts’ doesn’t run for another term, Kansas Republican leaders say Marshall, who represents Roberts’ old U.S. House seat, is the most likely candidate for his Senate seat.

“If the (Senate) seat was open, historically the 1st district congressman has been a de facto frontrunner. It’s the machine that produces senators,” said Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chair.

In addition to Roberts, both former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, spent time representing the “Big First,” a deep red Republican district which makes up more than half the state geographically.

Marshall called Roberts a friend and a mentor in a statement when asked if he would consider the seat if the senator retired.

During his 2014 campaign, Roberts was repeatedly attacked over his residency. The senator had rented out his Dodge City house and was registered to vote at a friend’s property. Roberts’ joke about having access to a recliner in Dodge City fueled Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf’s campaign.

Roberts’ spokeswoman Sarah Little confirmed that the senator purchased a new house in Topeka in 2016 — a sign that he may be looking to inoculate himself against the residency issue.

Marshall, a freshman congressman, is set to be the senior member of Kansas’ House delegation in January after Rep. Kevin Yoder’s defeat Tuesday and Rep. Lynn Jenkins’ imminent retirement. People close to Jenkins do not think she’s interested in a Senate run.

Despite Yoder’s loss to Democrat Sharice Davids, a source close to the Overland Park Republican said that donors, party operatives and voters have approached Yoder about a possible Senate run.

Yoder believes it is too early to consider anything yet and is focused on his own must-pass legislation, the Homeland Security budget bill, the source said.

But another Kansas Republican who came up short this election cycle also might have eyes on job: Outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer, who lost the Republican primary by 343 votes.

Colyer’s team has indicated he is open to running for elected office again and hasn’t ruled out the 2020 Senate race. It could depend on what Roberts decides to do in the coming months.

“Gov. Colyer has not ruled out the possibility,” Colyer’s spokeswoman Kara Zeyer said. “He’s open to any opportunity that will allow him to continue to serve the people of Kansas in the future in the best way that he can.”

The Kansas City Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.