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Could Kansas Become a Swing State in 2020?

The retirement of Sen. Pat Roberts creates a unique opportunity for Democrats

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, speaks briefly to reporters after he opened and closed a brief session of the U.S. Senate amid the partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in WashingtonGovernment Shutdown, Washington, USA - 27 Dec 2018

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, speaks briefly to reporters after he opened and closed a brief session of the U.S. Senate amid the partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, DC.

J Scott Applewhite/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) announced Friday he will not seek reelection in 2020. “I will serve the remainder of this term as your senator, fighting for Kansas in these troubled times,” the 82-year-old Republican said in remarks delivered from the Kansas Department of Agriculture. 

The senator boasted he’d end his political career having never lost a race, a record he was “damned proud of.” Left unsaid was the fact that Roberts, now two-thirds of the way through his fourth term in the Senate, faced his toughest challenge yet during his most recent campaign in 2014, squeaking through the primary with just 48 percent of the vote and winning the general election by a slimmer-than-usual margin of nine points.

Kansas Democrats said Friday the party was “well-positioned” to take the open seat. Well-positioned might be a stretch — they haven’t won a Senate seat since 1932 — but Democrats certainly have more reason now to be more optimistic about their chances than at any point in recent history.

In 2018, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated arch-conservative Kris Kobach to become Kansas’ new governor-elect. Kelly was helped by a coalition of Republicans who rejected Kobach, calling him too extreme for Kansas. And hers wasn’t the only high profile Democratic win last year: Sharice Davids, an openly-gay Native American, defeated Trumpist Republican Kevin Yoder to flip a GOP-controlled Congressional seat. And in December, three GOP state legislators switched parties, becoming Democrats and calling the Republican party too extreme.

Improving Democrats’ odds in Kansas is the fact that the race will be held in a presidential election year when there is usually higher voter participation. Increased turnout typically favors Democrats and, if President Trump’s approval rating continues to fall, that turnout could be even bigger than usual in 2020. And finally, there’s the fact that Republicans will be on the defensive in the Senate, with more than 22 seats to try and hold on to compared to Democrats’ 12.

Roberts’ retirement guarantees a crowded Republican field. Among the names already being floated to succeed him are Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, outgoing governor Jeff Colyer, as well as Kobach and Yoder. The race could represent a rematch of sorts for Colyer and Kobach, who faced off in the Republican primary for governor in 2018.

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