Roberts headed back to Senate Ag Committee, no plans to reopen farm bill

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON – In a series of hard-fought midterm election battles, Republicans won control of the Senate by securing major re-election victories for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, while winning at least seven U.S. Senate seats that had previously been held by Democrats.

Republicans won seats in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia and kept a GOP grip on Georgia where businessmen David Perdue handily defeated Democrat Michelle Nunn, by 56 to 42 percent, respectively.

But the outcome of some races is still uncertain. In Louisiana, neither Democrat incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu or GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy crossed the 50 percent threshold needed to win, so that race moves to a runoff on Dec. 6.

Alaska election results are also still being finalized. With almost 50 percent of the votes counted, Republican Dan Sullivan was running ahead of Democratic incumbent Mark Begich.

Republicans needed to gain six seats to win a Senate majority for 2015, but they also couldn’t afford to lose any incumbents. And that meant Roberts – who was seeking his fourth term in the U.S. Senate and is likely to be the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee – couldn’t afford to lose to businessman Greg Orman, who ran as an independent and refused to say whether he would caucus with either party.

After the Democratic candidate dropped out of the race, Orman held a small lead in the majority of the polls up until the election – that’s despite a game-changing GOP “reset” to the Roberts campaign and a steady stream of GOP heavy hitters, like former Sen. Bob Dole, crossing the state to campaign on his behalf. The state that has consistently elected Republicans to the Senate since 1932 but, voters who were just plain fed up with gridlock in Congress seemed increasingly willing to give Orman a try.

On election night, voters in some of the more urban parts of the state near Kansas City provided Orman with an early lead. However, Roberts still managed to beat Orman on his home turf on the southern edge of Kansas City in Johnson County – home to more Republicans and Independents than any other region of the state – by about 2,500 votes.

And with support from organizations like the Kansas Farm Bureau, voters in the western and more rural parts of the state weighed in heavily for Roberts, giving him a 53 percent to 43 percent margin of victory.

Roberts said farmers and rural voters – whose voice is usually drowned out during presidential election years when turnout is usually larger – played a big role in his victory.

“I had 14 farm organizations endorse me. That really helped a lot. And of course all my past history representing the big first district of Kansas. …..I think a large part of that was due to our work in agriculture and the support of our farm organizations and our commodity groups,” he explained.

Will the GOP get ‘er done?

While noting that he learned a lot throughout the tough campaign, Roberts told cheering supporters at his victory party in Topeka he was “deeply humbled” by the outcome.

“I’ve heard my marching orders loud and clear,” Roberts emphasized in a fiery tone. “I will be bold, I will be conservative and I will be constructive. And I promise you this, we will get things done.”

“The eyes of the nation were on Kansas….. the country was counting on us to help deliver a Republican majority and we delivered,” he added.

Roberts, who previously chaired the House Committee on Agriculture from 1995-1997, said he would be the next chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and “we will put farmers and ranchers first.”

One thing he will not do? Reopen the farm bill – despite speculation to the contrary from Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

“I just left a voice message for Collin Peterson and told him to calm down and play his guitar and I would sing cool, cool waters with him. I have no desire whatsoever to open it (the farm bill) up and I don’t think it would be the right thing to do,” Roberts told me.

The day after he was re-elected to his 13th term in Minnesota, Peterson told reporters that he had concerns about Roberts serving as the next likely chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“He has made some noise about opening up the farm bill if he gets to be chairman, which is a very bad idea, and puts everything we worked for in jeopardy,” Peterson told the Associated Press. “He pointed out that Roberts used his position as chairman of the House panel in 1996 to pass the “Freedom to Farm” act, which was designed to wean farmers off subsidies in exchange for more flexibility in deciding what to grow. Roberts also voted against this year’s farm bill,” the AP article noted.

Roberts said the first thing he would do, if selected as Senate Agriculture Committee chair, is to “sit down with members and determine their priorities, both on the Republican and Democrat side, with the ranking member. And then move from there.”

“I just wanted to set that record straight: We have child nutrition and CFTC (reauthorization) that are coming right up on us,” Roberts explained. “So those would be two objectives, plus farmers are complaining more about regulation than they are the farm bill. We might address that but we would have to figure out exactly how.”

Roberts noted that his primary concern with the 2014 farm bill was to first save, then improve the crop insurance program.

“Most of those changes don’t take effect until 2015 so we’ll have to do some oversight on that for sure. I think we’ll have to do a lot of oversight,” he added. “This is a brand new farm bill; but that doesn’t mean we rewrite it. You know, farmers want consistency more than anything else.”