Run or retire? Pat Roberts will announce his decision on 2020 Senate race Friday

Lone Sen. Pat Roberts holds down the fort during government shutdown

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, answers questions from reporters on at the U.S. Capitol about the government shutdown. On Thursday, Dec. 27, Roberts was the only senator from either party on Capitol Hill.
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Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, answers questions from reporters on at the U.S. Capitol about the government shutdown. On Thursday, Dec. 27, Roberts was the only senator from either party on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Pat Roberts will announce Friday whether he plans to end his political career or kick off another campaign as he approaches his fourth decade in Congress.

Roberts, R-Kansas, will announce his decision at the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s headquarters in Manhattan, Kansas, a symbolic location after the senator shepherded the farm bill to passage last month with historic majorities.

The 82-year-old Kansas senator’s announcement will put an end to weeks of speculation about Roberts’ future as prominent Republicans in the state, including outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer, have already begun lining up to launch campaigns if Roberts steps aside.

A GOP showdown for an open seat could also include Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, former Rep. Kevin Yoder, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who defeated Colyer by 345 votes in the primary for governor before losing the general election.

Former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom has been weighing a 2020 campaign as a Democrat for months, contending that Democratic victories in November show the party could win the seat for the first time since 1932.

If Roberts retires, he’ll walk away with an unblemished 24-0 record in elections. If he opts to make one more run, he’s likely to face tough challenges in both the GOP primary and general election after he stumbled during the 2014 race.

Roberts’ survived a primary challenge from Tea Party candidate Milton Wolf in 2014 with less than 50 percent of the vote after Wolf hammered Roberts for not spending enough time in Kansas.

Roberts went on to win his general election by double digits after a flood of national Republican money poured into the state to help him defend the seat.

“I take 102 of 105 counties,” he recalled in a December interview. “Normally, that would be considered a landslide back in the day. Instead, it’s that I scraped by.”

Roberts said he always knew he was going to win in 2014, but at a celebratory dinner after the election he found out many of the people who worked on his campaign did not share his faith.

“I went around and asked every one of them, I said, ‘On the day of the election, did you think I was going to win?’ With the exception of two people, everybody said no,” Roberts said. “And then they said, ‘How did you win?’ I said, ‘Marines take the hill.’”

Roberts has spent a half century in Washington, including his Capitol Hill tenure as an aide for Kansas Republicans Frank Carlson and Keith Sebelius, before Roberts’ election to the U.S. House in 1980. He graduated to the Senate 16 years later.

He spent much of his career with a clear focus on agriculture policy and is the only lawmaker to have chaired both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.

In recent years, Roberts has earned the nickname “Farm Guy” from President Donald Trump because of his insistence about talking about agriculture every time he sees Trump. The senator helped dissuade Trump from a plan to cut crop insurance last year and has been outspoken in his frustration with the president’s use of tariffs.

“He’s the slow and steady hand when it comes to farm policy,” said Ryan Flickner, the senior director of the Kansas Farm Bureau. “He does obviously go into attack mode… If somebody’s going to attack crop insurance, he’ll be the pit bull.”

In addition to farm policy, Roberts’ career included four years as chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee. Roberts took over the committee shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

His tenure on that panel made him a target of criticism from Democrats, who accused him of protecting the Bush administration by stonewalling investigations of pre-war intelligence failures.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid forced a rare closed session of the Senate to protest Roberts’ handling of the probes in 2005, a maneuver Republicans dismissed as a stunt.

Roberts’ career as a lawmaker spanned six presidencies, but his ties to Republican politics go back even further.

His father, Charles Wesley Roberts, briefly chaired the Republican National Committee in 1953 after fellow Kansan Dwight Eisenhower’s election as president.

Roberts has championed the construction of an Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which is tentatively scheduled to open in 2020.

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Lindsay Wise is an investigative reporter for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Previously, Lindsay worked for six years as the Washington correspondent for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. Before joining McClatchy in 2012, she worked as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, where she specialized in coverage of veterans and military issues as well as the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.
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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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