Democrats double down in Kansas in a push to flip longtime red seats

Screenshot/Sharice Davids for CongressSharice Davids, the Democratic nominee in Kansas’ third congressional district.
  • Kansas hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress for a decade, but this year, that might change.
  • Democrats are targeting two House races in the ruby-red state that President Donald Trump won in 2016 by 21 points.
  • The governor’s mansion is also up for grabs, but a third-party candidate may undermine support for the Democrat on the ticket and hand the election to the Trump-backed GOP hardliner.

Kansas hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress for a decade, but this year, that might change.

With some luck, the governor’s mansion will also be part of a predicted midwestern blue wave.

Earlier this month, Sharice Davids, an openly gay Native American lawyer, clinched the competitive Democratic primary in the state’s third congressional district, beating out a spirited field that included a Sen. Bernie Sanders-backed alternative in the Kansas City suburbs.

Davids, a former mixed martial arts fighter, will face GOP incumbent Kevin Yoder in November in a district Hillary Clinton won by a single point in 2016. Democrats consider the seat one of a handful of must-wins if the party is to flip the House this year.

“You have voters that don’t want Trump, you have voters who don’t like what Yoder is, and Sharice Davids is the perfect antidote to all of that,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and top spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “If you looked for the opposite of Trumpism and the opposite of Yoder’s inside-the-beltway corruption, you would envision Sharice Davids.”

National Democratic groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into both Yoder’s district and the second congressional district, where five-term Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins is retiring and a popular Democrat, Paul Davis, is running against a political novice, Republican Steve Watkins. The GOP has a 10-point advantage in the district, which includes Topeka and Lawrence, in a state President Donald Trump won by 21 points.

After the state’s August primaries, the non-partisan Cook Political Report moved both House races from the “lean Republican” category to its list of “tossup” races.

Compounding Republican concern, it emerged last month that Watkins, a 41-year-old army veteran, met with Democratic Party officials last year before launching his race, in what the officials described as an effort to feel out a potential run as a Democrat.

Watkins denies that he expressed liberal social views during the meeting, which he confirmed occurred. The registered Republican – who now says he’s running to “stop illegal immigration, protect the unborn, and stand with President Trump” – has only voted once before in Kansas.

Democrats also hope that having Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, a controversial Trump-backed immigration hardliner, on the GOP ticket for governor will energize the state’s moderates and progressives.

A third-party spoiler?

Democrats celebrated when Kobach narrowly beat out the establishment favourite GOP candidate, incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer, in the August primary.

Best known for his far-right positions on immigration and for promoting Trump’s unsubstantiated theory that Clinton won the 2016 popular vote as a result of widespread voter fraud, Kobach is unpopular among many moderate Republicans in the state and barely eked out a primary victory after the president endorsed him at the last minute.

But Democratic nominee Laura Kelly, a moderate state senator who secured an unexpectedly decisive primary victory, may be undermined by a wealthy independent candidate, Greg Orman, who has decided to remain in the race. Democrats are worried Orman could lure enough Republican and unaffiliated voters away from Kelly to hand Kobach a November victory – even without a majority of the vote.

Orman is campaigning as a centrist independent, but his policy positions – where they’re clear – are actually to the left of Kelly’s. A former Democratic candidate for US Senate, Orman has attacked Kelly’s more conservative stances on gun control, voter ID laws, and Medicaid expansion. Some believe that despite his progressive politics, Orman could appeal to moderate Kansans alienated by Kobach.

Kansas' Democratic candidate for governor Laura KellyScreenshot/Laura Kelly for GovernorKansas’ Democratic candidate for governor Laura Kelly

“Partisanship being what it is, there may be a chunk of moderate Republicans, wherever they actually fall on issues, who may be tempted to vote for an independent rather than to vote for a Democrat,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Orman could well be the spoiler in the race.”

Years of a lagging state economy have also weakened Kansas’s GOP. Last year, the Republican-controlled state legislature reversed former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s dramatic 2012 tax cuts, which slashed state revenue for schools and local government and failed to create the 100,000 new jobs the party promised.

In 2016, the state shortened the academic year to cut costs, and in 2017, the Kansas supreme court ruled that the state was starving its schools of funding by hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Kelly’s latest campaign ad takes place inside a public school classroom, where she argues that Brownback’s “big tax experiment” has devastated the state’s schools.

“I’m running for governor to undo that harm,” she said.

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