Kansas Democrats seek to shed state’s ‘red rectangle’ reputation

PHOTO: Democratic Congressional candidate Sharice Davids talks to supporters at her campaign office on Oct 22, 2018 in Overland Park, Kan.PlayCharlie Riedel/AP
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Like the tornado that plucked Dorothy Gale from her farmhouse in this state and dropped her in Oz once upon a fictional time, Americans are currently staring down an electoral storm threatening to flip conventional political assumptions on their heads.

Democrats from coast to coast are expected to flip House seats in this year's midterm elections, but perhaps nowhere as unique as Kansas, where two competitive districts sit adjacent to one another here in the eastern third of the state, but where the races -- while occupying the same political atmosphere -- are sharply different in complexion, like the indigos and oranges lying parallel across a Sunflower State sunset.

The uninterrupted block of red than ran down the middle of the 2016 presidential election map -- and made President Donald Trump so proud that the map was hung in the White House -- doesn't accurately reflect the numbers by which Trump faced opposition in "Republican" states, particularly in Kansas, a state with an independent streak that manifests in wave cycles. 2018 appears no different.

PHOTO: Democratic Congressional candidate Sharice Davids talks to supporters at her campaign office on Oct 22, 2018 in Overland Park, Kan. Charlie Riedel/AP
Democratic Congressional candidate Sharice Davids talks to supporters at her campaign office on Oct 22, 2018 in Overland Park, Kan.

"We now have a lot of people looking at Kansas and maybe they weren't sure which red rectangle we were," said Sharice Davids, the Democratic candidate for Kansas' 3rd congressional district.

Davids' campaign has been extensively covered by the national media as the personification of a number of 2018's multicolored waves rolled into one. She is a Native American lesbian woman who graduated from Cornell Law School, competed professionally as a mixed martial artist and earned a White House Fellowship.

But even if the six-candidate August Democratic primary she won by 2,000 votes elevated a less intriguing candidate, the suburban Kansas City district still appeared to be on the cusp of change.

“I think people who haven’t been here or aren’t familiar with the state perceive us as Wizard of Oz land… but we have everything -- from that really small town, stereotypical Great Plains communities, to suburban, wealthy, highly-educated, trending-Democratic communities, with hundreds of thousands of people who live in them,” said Patrick Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

“There’s a real breadth of diversity in the state.”

PHOTO: Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., talks to supporters during a parade in Overland Park, Kan. on Sept. 29, 2018. Charlie Riedel/AP
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., talks to supporters during a parade in Overland Park, Kan. on Sept. 29, 2018.

Wyandotte, Kansas's fourth-most populous county, is a blue speck on Trump's red map, but it and Johnson County, the state's most populated, comprise the bulk of the 3rd district. Johnson County preferred the president to Hillary Clinton by less than 8,000 votes and the district as a whole went to Clinton by 1 percentage point, even as it returned Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., to Washington for his fourth term by a 10-point margin.

As one of 25 districts nationwide won by Clinton but represented by a Republican, and with a growing population of young and diverse voters, the 3rd immediately has become a prime Democratic target in 2018.

“That is the stereotypical suburbia that we’re seeing right now that is not particularly fond of Donald Trump,” Miller said.

I think that we're resetting expectations this year about who runs for office.

The transformation of eastern Kansas' electorate was illustrated this past Tuesday in the parking lot of a Sonic Drive-In, where Davids met with supporters ready to cast their ballots on Wyandotte's first day of early voting.

After addressing the voters, an array of men and women, young and old, black and white -- one of whom carried a rainbow flag -- others who appeared to be college students wearing Kansas Jayhawk apparel, the first-time candidate reflected on a journey that began less than a year ago, and was colored by her own varied experiences.

"I think that we're resetting expectations this year about who runs for office, about who we support as candidates," Davids said. "We're resetting expectations about what we expect from our Congress. We want a Congress that's more reflective of the experiences that we have as a community or as a country."

But while the Trump backlash in a demographically changing Clinton district may be enough to carry Democrats to victories in a number of House races (Davids herself is given a 7 in 9 chance of victory by ABC News partner FiveThirtyEight), the calculus is more complex as one travels west down the Kansas Turnpike.

As the suburbs give way to wheat fields, the red deepens, but not so much that Democrats are totally uncompetitive.

In the state's 2nd District, a much larger swath that envelops the semicircular 3rd District from the Nebraska-Missouri border to the north, all the way to Oklahoma to the south, the party capitalized on the George W. Bush backlash of 2006 -- a year when Democrats netted 31 House seats -- to elect Rep. Nancy Boyda, whose single, two-year term interrupted what would have otherwise been 24 years of GOP dominance.

PHOTO: Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate in the 2nd Congressional District in Kansas, answers questions during a news conference in Topeka, Kan. on Aug. 24, 2018. John Hanna/AP
Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate in the 2nd Congressional District in Kansas, answers questions during a news conference in Topeka, Kan. on Aug. 24, 2018.

Less affluent and more socially conservative than the 3rd District, it's less likely that an unabashedly liberal campaign such as Davids' could be as successful in the 2nd, where Trump won by 17 points and Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., cruised to her fifth term by 28 percent in 2016. But Jenkins, one of the top GOP women in the House after four years as the vice chair of the House Republican Conference, announced her retirement in January, opening the door for a more competitive open seat election.

Enter Paul Davis, a 12-year member of the Kansas House of Representatives and former minority leader, and the state's Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2014, where he fell less than four points shy of unseating then-Gov. Sam Brownback. Davis' experience makes him something of an outlier among the first-time congressional candidates in his party, many of whom, like Davids, have never held any elected office. But Davis’ resume is also a tangible asset in the 2nd District, where he built a base of support four years ago.

“It’s really easy for someone to stand up and say, ‘I’m an outsider and I’m going to do all of these things.’ But they’ve never done them before. I’ve actually done them,” said Davis in an interview, adding that his bipartisan work ethic is part of the reason he won him the 2nd district by 7 points during his gubernatorial race, and why he’s attracted 36 endorsements from elected Republican officials this time around.

They want Washington to work, but they want it to work for them.

Davis’ pragmatism, a quality that might turn off the most liberal Democrats in the nation’s far-left enclaves, may be exactly the reason his campaign has been so competitive as it approaches the cycle’s final week. FiveThirtyEight rates the race a “toss-up.” To the former state representative, who said he’s proactively reached out to Trump voters and found common ground -- “They want to ‘drain the swamp,’ I want to ‘drain the swamp’” -- it’s about changing the tenor in D.C., but also delivering tangible results for Kansas.

“They want Washington to work, but they want it to work for them,” Davis said of 2nd District residents.

“The only balance I look for is what’s in my pocketbook,” said Tim Hersh, 57, of Topeka, a lifelong GOP voter and volunteer for Davis’ opponent, Republican Steve Watkins. At a Republican party office in the state capital where his fellow volunteers were calling voters, Hersh said it was Davis’ track-record -- one of raising taxes, he claimed -- that sealed his embrace of the widely unknown Watkins.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump, left, talks with Republican candidate for Kansas 2nd Congressional District Steve Watkins during a campaign rally at Kansas Expocentre, Oct. 6, 2018 in Topeka, Kan. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Donald Trump, left, talks with Republican candidate for Kansas' 2nd Congressional District Steve Watkins during a campaign rally at Kansas Expocentre, Oct. 6, 2018 in Topeka, Kan.

On experience alone, the 2nd District is 180 degrees from the multitude of races around the country where a fresh-faced Democrat is challenging an entrenched Republican. The newcomer Watkins, who had never run for public office prior to this year and claims to have been apolitical during his service as an Army ranger, launched a bid so out of left field that he took a meeting last year with local Democrats who claim he was feeling out a run as a socially-liberal moderate. Watkins denies that was the aim of the encounter.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence each lent their endorsement to Watkins’ candidacy after a hard-fought seven-candidate primary, but, as Davis’ bipartisan support shows, there are many others in the party who are skeptical of the 42-year-old Army veteran. Much of the hesitancy is due to a cavalcade of controversies courted by the Republican.

The Kansas City Star reported in September that Watkins padded his resume with claims he "started" and "owned" an engineering and security company, statements that were untrue. The CEO of the parent company of the organization Watkins referenced went so far as to say that the candidate was "nobody that I’ve heard of."

Watkins campaign has pushed back on the story by explaining that Watkins never claimed ownership, despite a since-deleted Tweet stating the contrary -- "sent erroneously by a junior staffer," the campaign said -- and pointed to a coworker's statement that asserted Watkins and a small team started and grew the firm's international operations. Watkins himself told ABC News that the Star article "did not accurately reflect the reality of the situation."

"It's fake news," Watkins said.

A slew of additional reports have detailed the more than $1 million that Watkins father injected into a Super PAC to support his son, his disputed claims of heroism during a deadly earthquake on Mt. Everest and performance in the Iditarod sled dog race, and the open letter signed by 40 local Republicans denouncing his candidacy during the primary.

Watkins chalked up the negative attention to campaign tactics.

"These allegations of being a liar are simply not true,” he said. “They're unsubstantiated and they're attempts by a desperate opponent to try to win an election.”

PHOTO: Republican Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach answers a question during the Kansas Gubernatorial Debate at the Luncheon for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, on Oct. 16, 2018 in Wichita, Kan. Brian Hayes/The Wichita Eagle via AP
Republican Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach answers a question during the Kansas Gubernatorial Debate at the Luncheon for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, on Oct. 16, 2018 in Wichita, Kan.

Whether it's because of the question marks surrounding Watkins or Davis' efforts to court Republican voters, the 2nd district could be one of the closest races in the country next week.

Coupled with a gubernatorial election featuring polarizing state Secretary of State Kris Kobach and a formerly Democratic independent candidate, Greg Orman, who could play spoiler by pulling voters from Democrat Laura Kelly, and Kansans may be in for a late election night. One Democratic official predicted that the outcomes of the 2nd district and governor’s races would be in sync as crossover voters consider individual candidates, rather than voting down their usual party line.

Even before winners are declared, the concept of its competitive races playing a role in a national political transformation was becoming a point of pride in this pocket of the Sunflower State.

"I think that because of the way this election cycle is playing out, so many people are taking it into their own hands and saying, we need change, and there's something really uplifting and empowering about that, and I think what's happening in our district and in Kansas is not any different than that," Davids said.

So enthused were some Kansans that they leaned on their car horns as they drove past the Sonic and Davids' early voting rally, with each bust eliciting a cheer from the Democrat's supporters.

"They're honking for democracy," Davids joked.