Senate elections 101: The big Kansas issue Pat Roberts isn't talking about

Agriculture is Kansas’s bread-and-butter issue, literally. But Sen. Pat Roberts (R) – potential chair of the Agriculture Committee – is barely talking about it.

Orlin Wagner/AP
Fifth grade students from Plains Elementary School record Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas in Liberal, Kan., Oct. 24.

The Monitor's "Senate elections 101" series looks at the specific issues that will be driving voters in each of the 10 tossup races.

“I’m the father of crop insurance,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas said in his Oct. 15 debate with businessman Greg Orman, the political independent who is trying to unseat him.

Indeed, Senator Roberts – a member of Congress for 34 years – has a long record on agriculture, Kansas’s signature issue. And if Roberts wins reelection and Republicans take over the Senate, he is likely to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. But you may not know any of this from his stump speech. He largely focuses on Mr. Orman and tries to paint him as a closet Democrat and President Obama-lover – an anathema in conservative Kansas.

To win reelection, Roberts must do well in western Kansas, farm country. Normally, that would mean touting his record on agriculture. But he’s also trying to win over tea party voters who opposed him in the GOP primary, and they don’t like big government spending – including farm subsidies and food stamps.

Roberts voted against the 2014 farm bill, which cost $1 trillion over 10 years and also reauthorized the federal food stamp program. His tea party opponent, Milton Wolf, also opposed the legislation. Orman supported it. His base of support is in Kansas’s urban and suburban areas, where a majority of the state’s population lives.

Roberts’s soft-pedaling of agriculture is risky. Older Kansans will remember Roberts’s history as a friend to farmers, but younger Kansans may not (and may not be aware of the endorsements of Roberts by agricultural interests.) That leaves a blank slate for Orman, and he has filled it with talk of Roberts as a creature of Washington – where he owns a home, not in Kansas – and its hyperpartisanship.

“Orman is for the most part sticking to the theme of, ‘I will be a bridge-builder,’ ” says Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Roberts simply says, ‘I will vote against Harry Reid,’ ” the Democratic leader in the Senate.

Other issues have come up in Kansas’s Senate debates. Kansas’s immigrant population is growing, and Roberts is hardline: secure the border before any other reforms. Orman supports a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

On abortion, a key issue in socially conservative Kansas, Orman calls himself pro-choice – but says it’s time to move on. Roberts calls such a view “unconscionable.” On guns, Orman is the gun-owner and Roberts is not. But the gun lobby is supporting Roberts. Orman supports background checks.

On the Affordable Care Act, Roberts recites the Republican view, “repeal and replace,” but does not describe a replacement – or explain how to get around an Obama veto. Orman calls for  a focus on bringing down the cost of care.

Kansas has this year's oddest Senate race. There’s no Democrat on the ballot, leaving Orman to go head-to-head against Roberts. Orman has not stated which party he would caucus with if he wins. That makes Kansas a wild card on election night.

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