In Kansas Senate race, Pat Roberts’ legacy may be his downfall

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has his arm lifted in the air by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during a campaign bus tour kickoff event in downtown Wichita, Kan., on Oct. 9, 2014. Roberts and his opponent, Independent Greg Orman, are locked in a tight race that could decide which party controls the United States Senate. (Travis Heying/AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle)
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has his arm lifted in the air by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during a campaign bus tour kickoff event in downtown Wichita, Kan., on Oct. 9, 2014. Roberts and his opponent, Independent Greg Orman, are locked in a tight race that could decide which party controls the United States Senate. (Travis Heying/AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle) AP

Pat Roberts has never run a close race.

From his first election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980 to his last Senate campaign in 2008, Roberts handily beat every challenger he ever faced. The Kansas Republican trounced opponents – almost always winning by double digits and sometimes by more than 70 percent of the vote.

Now, at 78, Roberts is waging the fight of his life against independent candidate Greg Orman, a relatively unknown 45-year-old business owner from Olathe. With just weeks to go until Election Day, polls show a nail-bitingly tight race.

Up for grabs is not only Roberts’ Senate seat, but also his legacy. After decades in Congress, the veteran lawmaker has a dilemma: His longevity on Capitol Hill has become a liability with Kansas voters, nearly half of whom think Roberts is more focused on being a Washington insider than on representing Kansans, according to a survey earlier this year by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning pollster. It doesn’t help that in the past two years Roberts was perceived by many as throwing two longtime Kansas stalwarts under the bus in order to burnish his own conservative credentials.

It doesn’t help that Roberts’ signature legislative achievements are 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. His stint at the head of the prestigious Senate Intelligence Committee during the Iraq war was marred by vicious partisan sniping. He succeeded in securing a state-of-the-art research facility for his alma mater, Kansas State University, in 2008, only to vote down $400 million in federal funding for the project six years later.

Of 466 pieces of legislation Roberts sponsored since entering Congress in 1981, eight became 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 lawmaker, Republican Nancy Kassebaum, sponsored 341 bills in her 17 years in the Senate. Nineteen became law.

“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.”

Roberts’ supporters point out that a very small percentage of bills ever get enacted. Much of the work Roberts did in Congress – from winning new missions for Kansas military bases to saving rural Kansas hospitals from closure – took place behind the scenes, they say, or through negotiations and didn’t necessarily come in the form of legislation with his name on it.

“To quote former Sen. Dole, Pat Roberts is a work horse in the Senate and he’s worked tirelessly to deliver conservative results for Kansas,” Corry Bliss, a spokesman for the Roberts campaign, said in a statement.

Bliss said Roberts will deliver even more results if Republicans take control of the Senate in November.

“That’s why this election is so critical, because a vote for Orman is a vote for Harry Reid and more Washington gridlock, while a vote for Sen. Roberts is a vote for a Republican majority that will be focused on real results,” he said.

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 hardworking, 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. That was never Pat,” Glickman said.

He said he worked closely with Roberts on agriculture and rural legislation as a U.S. representative 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?’”

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, a prestigious job that boosted his national profile but also 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 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 pre-war 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. “Other lawmakers are out there doing stuff for their constituents and we saw him out there talking about security issues. 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 his 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, Bob 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 Kansas State University, 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 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.

“When the Republican Party moved so far to the right and the ideology became so strident, Pat Roberts moved with it and I think that’s unfortunate,” Jones said. “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. . . . It seems like now the Republican Party and Pat by necessity aren’t for anything. They just want to shut everything down, and that’s a sad commentary about how far we have come, both as a party and as a country.”

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. “People would have made his voting record an issue had it been that deviant from what a typical Kansan believes. . . . 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.”