A state often relegated to flyover political territory will see more than its usual share of congressional action this cycle.
Kansas, which already hosted a competitive special election, could feature a notable House race in each of its four districts. Democrats are recruiting challengers to Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder and for a Topeka-based open seat, and Republicans face the potential for primary battles in two deep-red districts.
The additional drama depends on Democrats’ ability to put in play a couple of seats they haven’t won in at least a decade. This week’s disappointing loss in Georgia may not breed confidence in that happening, particularly in Yoder’s similarly affluent, suburban 3rd District, but Democrats already have a couple of candidates there and an unexpectedly promising opportunity with their 2014 nominee for governor exploring a run in the open 2nd District.
“That 2nd District is the one race that I’m the most worried about right now,” said state GOP executive director Clay Barker, citing a lack of Republicans with a “strong name” and proven ability to fundraise. “The 2nd District is open, and we don’t have a natural preeminent candidate.”
With the retirement of Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who unseated a Democrat in 2008, Democrats see promise in former state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, who won the district by nearly 7 points against Gov. Sam Brownback, even though President Trump carried it by 18 points last year.
Davis, who maintains high name ID and a statewide fundraising base, won’t make a final decision on a bid for at least a couple months. He said in an interview that he sees a path to victory through a centrist, pro-business message and stressed a commitment to bipartisanship that has been missing in Congress.
“I’m a moderate Democrat, if I were to classify myself or label myself, and always have been. And I think there’s a lot of Republicans who are willing to vote for a moderate Democrat in Kansas,” he said, citing the crossover support he drew in his 2014 statewide bid.
Davis, who said he’s interested in the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, said he’d work with the president when possible but also wouldn’t “back down about criticizing him” when necessary.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald and local councilman Vernon Fields have both entered the race, and others are also weighing bids.
Multiple Republicans in the state acknowledged a dearth of top-tier candidates on their House bench, in part because of the allure of an open governor seat. Secretary of State Kris Kobach launched his campaign for governor in early June, and Kansas operatives said Attorney General Derek Schmidt is likely to stay put.
The governor race could affect the metro Kansas City-based 3rd District as well. A GOP source familiar with Yoder’s thinking pegged the odds of him running for governor at 50 percent, with a decision likely to come this summer.
Hillary Clinton won the 3rd by a point as Yoder, a skilled fundraiser, trounced financial adviser Jay Sidie, who is likely to run again. After four commanding double-digit victories, Republicans insisted that Yoder would be formidable if he remains in the House, especially in light of the special-election result in Georgia’s 6th District.
David Kensinger, a former top Brownback aide, said Jon Ossoff’s loss there despite an enormous fundraising advantage and turnout operation “tells me the likelihood of Kevin Yoder getting reelected is very strong.”
But Democrats remain optimistic. Polling released Wednesday from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed a generic Democrat winning Yoder’s seat by 6 points, an increase from a 2016 generic ballot test that found the candidates tied.
The party recently landed and then quickly lost a top-tier candidate in Joe McConnell, a Bronze Star recipient, though health care advocate Andrea Ramsey declared her candidacy on the same day he dropped out.
National Democrats, including EMILY’s List, are excited about Ramsey, who recently stepped down as president of a local pediatric clinic and decided to run after protesting outside Yoder’s office.
Meanwhile, primaries could be starting to take shape in the central and western regions of the state. In the 1st District, former Rep. Tim Huelskamp has hinted at a rematch with Rep. Roger Marshall, who unseated him in the 2016 primary amid $2.5 million in spending from warring conservative- and establishment-aligned outside groups.
Huelskamp sent a fundraising blast in January after Marshall’s son “dabbed” in his father’s swearing-in photo, and he often blasts his successor on social media, though he didn’t show much fundraising in the first quarter. Club for Growth President David McIntosh suggested in February that the group could support Huelskamp again after spending more than $400,000 in last year’s primary.
In a statement to National Journal, Huelskamp spokesman Jadan Horyn declined to comment on whether the former congressman was mulling another run. But he took the opportunity to slam Marshall as “a full-fledged Washington insider and a media hound.”
After Rep. Ron Estes’s lackluster performance in the 4th District’s April 11 special election, state Senate President Susan Wagle, a 25-year veteran of Kansas politics who is well-connected in Wichita, is testing the waters for a possible primary challenge, according to two sources familiar with her thinking.
Wagle might be more dynamic on the trail than Estes, whom Republicans describe as hardworking but wonk-ish and who was nominated this year through a convention, not a primary. Wagle has been calling donors to assess her ability to finance a campaign against an incumbent, while Estes’s general-election challenger, Democrat James Thompson, has also launched another bid.
In an interview last month, Estes dismissed the challenges as “part of the process” and said he was working hard to prove himself to constituents.
“We’ll run like we’re two votes down and work to win,” he said.