There’s No Place Like Kansas in 2018

The state could host intriguing races in each of its congressional districts.

2014 Kansas Democratic governor nominee Paul Davis may run for Congress in the 2nd District next year.
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
June 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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