In early February, something happened in Washington that would have been unimaginable a decade or so earlier: The senior senator from Kansas, along with the state's entire House delegation, voted against a 10-year, $195 billion farm bill, despite the fact that the Kansas Farm Bureau had urged its passage.
For someone like Pat Roberts, who represented Kansas' “Big First” congressional district for 18 years before moving to the Senate, serving the interests of the state's farm communities and agricultural industry was once considered a basic part of the job description.
But now, as Roberts runs for his third term in the Senate, he faces a Tea Party-backed challenger in the upcoming GOP primary who says Roberts' years of service in Washington and his skills in securing funding for things like farm programs should be viewed as strikes against him, marks of someone who has become too much of a political insider.
And so, in the eyes of many people, Roberts has done what other longtime Republicans facing Tea Party challenges have done: moved hard to the right and tried to out-Tea Party the Tea Party.
“When it's convenient for him to be conservative, he'll be that for you. And when it's not, he won't,” Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf said during a rally Thursday in Topeka.
Roberts, however, denies that he has changed his conservative stripes.
“I can see how somebody might reach that assumption, given my primary opponent, and given all the attention being spent nationally on the Tea Party,” Roberts said during a recent telephone interview. “But we have quite a bit of Tea Party support. I've always had the privilege, or something, of representing the Kansas Republican Party over troubled waters, from moderates to regular Republicans or whatever you want to call it, to those folks who play pretty close to the right field line.”
Roberts said he understands why it might appear to some that he has moved to the right. But what has really happened, he said, is that the White House has moved far to the left.
“At least that's my interpretation as you look at all the regulations and federal intrusion and Obamacare, etc., etc.,” Roberts said. “As a result, with the president far left, I think I'm about where I always have been. I remember when I was in the House, I was allegedly the most conservative member in the House. I don't think I've changed much, but I would consider myself a very pragmatic Republican, if that's a title.”
Farm Bill battle
Roberts, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he worked hard on the bill and got many things included that help Kansas farmers. But his vote against the final package was based on concerns about specific elements, including target prices for certain commodities, and not an attempt to avoid Tea Party criticism.
And the Kansas Farm Bureau, whose political action committee is still endorsing Roberts, says it is still satisfied with the work Roberts has done.
“If you look at it from an overall perspective, the senator did yeoman's work in protecting and achieving the results (we wanted) on crop insurance and several other gains that we got in the bill,” said Farm Bureau CEO and General Counsel Terry Holdren. “Overall, the product is a great one for Kansas producers, and it's largely there because of his efforts and work on the committee.”
Common Core standards
Roberts' vote against the Farm Bill was not the only recent position he has taken that has surprised some of his longtime supporters.
Also in February, Roberts introduced a bill related to the Common Core State Standards in reading and math, a subject that Tea Party groups around the country have focused on in recent years. His bill would prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from using any form of coercion or incentives to prod states into adopting those standards.
“Setting high standards for our schools, our teachers and our children is the right thing to do, but those standards should be decided in Kansas, without bribes or mandates from Washington,” Roberts said in a news release.
That came as a surprise to Kansas State Board of Education member Sally Cauble, R-Dodge City, a longtime Roberts supporter who served on the multistate panel that guided the drafting of those standards.
“I would go into his office and share with him what we were doing — we were one of the states active in developing the Common Core standards," Cauble said. "A lot of our educators and volunteers were active in writing and developing those standards, and I never received any pushback from his office at all.”
“I felt like he was undermining the State Board of Education in the state of Kansas,” she said.
But Roberts said frustration about Common Core standards comes up routinely at town hall meetings he holds in Kansas.
“It's gone from concern to frustration to anger, and then looking at me and saying why can't you stop this,” Roberts said. “The bill was to address that concern. I'm more than happy to work with Sally and the board of education to make sure Kansans make these decisions."
Roberts is now 77, meaning if he wins re-election, he would be 84 when his next term expires. And although he has occasionally considered retirement, he said he still believes he can be an effective senator.
“If we (Republicans) don't shoot ourselves in the foot and take the Senate, I will be chairman of either Ag or Rules or something, and I'll have an opportunity to make a difference,” he said.