Kansas primary: a test for red state Democrats in the Trump era
Sharice Davids, an amateur MMA fighter running for Congress in Kansas, arrived at the 403 Club, a pinball bar in downtown Kansas City, for a campaign fundraiser ready to take on the evening’s champion. But she never got the chance. Everyone – from her supporters to the bar’s patrons – wanted to say hello.
“I thought you’d be bigger!” a man blurted as she reached to shake his hand. Davids, whose campaign ad titled Ring her furiously pounding and kicking a boxing bag, had heard this before.
“Yes,” she said, confirming his surprise. “I’m five-three!”
Davids’s pastime has helped distinguish her in a crowded primary for the chance to oust Republican Kevin Yoder in a district that Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016.
“We should have had this seat after the last election cycle,” Davids said. “I think what’s missing is something to vote for. A person to vote for. Ideas to vote for. I didn’t see that in the race so I decided that I was just going to do it myself.”
On 7 August, voters here will make their choice in a six-way primary that is being watched as a test of what Democratic voters in a red state want in a candidate.
The contenders are largely aligned on ideology – and differ only slightly in degrees on policy. But what they have come to represent in tone and rhetoric is the competing impulses of a party in search of a path to power in Donald Trump’s Washington.
Davids, a former White House fellow who would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress and one of only a few openly gay congressional lawmakers, is part of a legion of first-time female candidates running to take on the president. Her two strongest opponents are Brent Welder, a labor lawyer endorsed by Bernie Sanders whose platform includes Medicare for all and a $15 federal minimum wage, and Tom Niermann, a high school history teacher with support from local elected officials.
Rounding out the field are Jay Sidie, the 2016 Democratic nominee, Sylvia Williams, a banker, and Mike McCamon, a former tech executive in an unusually robust race in a state that has only sent two Democrats to Washington in the 21st century.
Unseating Yoder could determine who controls the US House in November, making the race a high priority for both parties.
Vice President Mike Pence came to the district to raise money for Yoder and Trump recently endorsed the congressman. Meanwhile, a super pac dedicated to electing House Democrats announced plans to reserve at least $660,000 in TV airtime in the Kansas City media market during the final weeks of the election, far more of an investment than Democrats running in past cycles received.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district. But Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Yoder has reason to worry.
“This is one of those suburban, well-educated, affluent battlegrounds where the Republican brand is souring,” Miller said.
He pointed to the governor’s race in Virginia, where in 2017 Democrats exploited Trump’s deep unpopularity to rack up huge margins in traditionally Republican suburban communities.
Yoder, who won his seat in the Tea Party wave of 2010, has consistently voted with Trump. He replaced Dennis Moore, a moderate Democrat who served in Congress for 12 years before retiring.
The Democrats vying for the seat are largely running to the left of Moore on issues such as health care and gun control, as they try to harness the energy of the Trump resistance into a campaign that can win in a conservative heartland.
In 2016, a wave of moderate Republicans and Democrats swept the state legislature as the rest of the country divided sharply along political lines. Their success was largely fueled by a backlash to Governor Sam Brownback’s radical “tax-cutting experiment” that triggered budget shortfalls and starved education funding. In 2017, the Republican-controlled state legislature overrode his veto to reverse the cuts.
It took the urgency of an economic crisis to bring political change to Kansas, said Aaron Estabrook, the executive director of Save Kansas Coalition, a nonpartisan political alliance that promotes moderation.
“We’re still digging out,” Estabrook said. Education remains a priority for voters across the state, he said, and suspected the issue would factor into the congressional races as well.
Yet it is unclear how long a shadow Brownback’s unpopularity would cast on Kansas Republicans. In competitive congressional races in the state, according to one Democrat who has viewed internal polling, Brownback is less popular among Kansas voters than House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
What Democrats want in Kansas
Just down the road from the pinball bar, Welder declared “Kansas populism alive and well” at a sweat-soaked rally with Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Democrats, he continued, had tried centrism before and kept losing. Only a “bold, progressive economic plan” would win back the working-class voters who abandoned their party for Trump in 2016, he said to raucous applause.
Sanders told the crowd that electing Welder to Congress would be a victory for the progressive movement that resonated “not only all across this country but all over the world”.
Kansas had already proved it was possible, the Vermont Independent said, reminding the audience that he won the state’s presidential caucus by a margin.
Republicans point out that it was Trump who ultimately won the state by more than 20 percentage points in 2016. And while it remains unclear who will emerge from the primary next week, Republicans are already using Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s intervention to paint the field as too far left for Kansas.
“I can’t think of two people who best exemplify the brand of politics these House candidates are running on than Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee after Sanders’ visit.
“Their far-left progressive policy proposals are better suited for liberal enclaves in New York City and Hollywood than Kansas,” he added, in a sign of attacks to come.
Before Sanders arrived in Kansas City, Niermann spent the hottest hours of that summer day knocking on doors with local officials. His campaign called the canvassing effort a “response to Sanders’ visit”.
“People in our community are not all that interested in national political figures who come into town,” Niermann said. “As a teacher and a lifelong Kansan I know firsthand what issues are important to my community. The people here are really concerned about education, school safety and health care and that’s what I’m focusing on.”
Among the endorsements he’s touting is one from Republican state senator, Barbara Bollier.
Bollier said she could not support Yoder after he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year. But she decided to cross party lines during the primary because she believes Niermann is “electable” and the “best candidate” for the district.
“The district itself is very moderate. People here are looking for someone who is pragmatic and who will work across the aisle,” said Bollier, who has drawn the ire of her party over the endorsement. “I do not believe someone backed by Bernie Sanders will do as well.”
Who wins Tuesday’s primary is still anybody’s guess. But Bollier said she had a hard time remembering a congressional Democratic primary as competitive as this one.
“There are so many of them in this race,” she said. “I really don’t know what will happen. That’s a good thing, I think. The people will sort it out.”