OVERLAND PARK, Kan.—The political environment for House Republicans has gotten so rough that the congressman running for a fifth term in the GOP-leaning Kansas City suburbs is acting like an underdog, dashing home from Washington to meet with as many constituents as possible. Meanwhile, his lesser-known Democratic challenger is acting like the incumbent, banking eye-popping fundraising totals and skipping opportunities to debate her embattled opponent.
The race between Rep. Kevin Yoder and Democratic attorney Sharice Davids says everything about the midterm environment of 2018. It reflects the collapse of the Republican Party in typically conservative suburbs across the country. It illustrates the potency of Democratic challengers with minimal experience in elective politics. And it shows how alarmed that once-entrenched Republican officeholders are acting, as they see polling showing the likelihood of a big, blue wave hitting ashore in a month’s time.
Yoder made a point of boasting how he’s been more accessible in the race’s closing weeks, after attending a Johnson County Bar Association forum that Davids opted to skip. When he knew he wouldn’t have to be back in Washington for votes this week, Yoder confirmed his attendance at the event Wednesday—and made light of his opponent’s’ absence.
“We’re the underdog in this race. My opponent thinks she has the race in the bag. I was at a parade Saturday, she was at a fundraiser in New York,” Yoder said. “I’m running this race the old-fashioned way. We know we’re fighting in a very tough climate and we’re fighting for every single vote. I’m knocking on doors, going to parades, and talking to voters.”
It’s a head-spinning political shift for Davids to be in the position of congresswoman-in-waiting. A onetime aspiring mixed-martial-arts fighter, Davids spent her early professional years working as a waitress and bartender before getting a law degree and working in the Obama White House. She offers Democrats one of the most dramatic rags-to-riches stories of the cycle. Several Democratic operatives in the state advised her not to run, skeptical she’d have enough time to build a successful political operation. She could only afford three staffers for her primary campaign, barely scraping enough money together to win just over 23,000 votes in a closely contested race.
Since winning the nomination in August, her fortunes have dramatically changed. Davids just reported raising more than $2.7 million over the past three months, a stunning haul that is usually reserved for senators or presidential candidates. She received national attention for being one of the few Native American women running for Congress—and would be the first lesbian congresswoman ever elected in Kansas. And a recent New York Times/Siena poll finds Davids with a commanding 8-point lead over Yoder, 51 to 43 percent, topping the vaunted majority mark for a challenger.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, alarmed at the worsening political environment, pulled $1 million that had been reserved to help Yoder’s campaign. (The Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC plans to continue airing attack ads against Davids, according to a source familiar with the group’s plans.) The Cook Political Report moved the race this week to “Lean Democrat,” citing Davids’s record of attracting national donors and winning independent voters. Even Yoder’s own polling showed him with a net unfavorable rating (38/42 percent), an alarming sign for a longtime congressman.
“There’s a lot of energy here in Johnson County. Sharice should be credited with developing that energy. She connects so many universes: She’s an attorney, Native-American, she was a White House fellow,” said state Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat who represents part of the congressional district. “She’s living the American Dream. That’s what energizes people.”
Davids is a newcomer to elective politics, and she hesitates when asked about some of the leading issues for voters in the district. When I interviewed her Friday after Judge Brett Kavanaugh clinched a spot on the Supreme Court, she didn’t hold a strong opinion about the proceedings. “Most of the last couple of weeks with the Kavanaugh stuff going on, I think the full confirmation process is so important and what we’re seeing now highlights how important our elections are. I haven’t had a chance to think about what the actual confirmation means,” Davids said. “Watching the way the entire process played out, I’d call it concerning. … Going in, hypotheticals about how I would vote when I’m not sitting there, I don’t know if I want to get into that.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund has been airing ads attacking her on immigration, highlighting a radio interview she gave during the primary expressing support for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s not her position now, but she still strongly opposes the president’s border wall. “I don’t support abolishing ICE. We have to be figuring out ways to get bipartisan immigration-reform done,” she said. Asked if she supports federal funding for a border wall, she flatly said: “No.”
Several Kansas Democratic operatives, while bullish about her chances because of the promising national environment, have been underwhelmed by her candidacy on the ground. Davids is still largely unknown to the Kansas City-area insiders who play an outsized role in local contests, having just won her primary less than three months ago. After Davids skipped the Johnson County Bar Association forum, a Democratic organizer (and wife of a bar association member) raced to the party’s headquarters to warn about complacency from the challenger’s campaign.
“We’re working our asses off trying to get her elected. She can’t keep backing out of things! This is bad, bad, bad!” she told a Democratic field organizer at the party office, citing several other events that she’s missed. The woman, a retired attorney who didn’t want to give her name, said many of the group’s Democratic attendees were deeply disappointed that she didn’t attend.
Davids said she chose not to attend when the congressman decided he was attending in person instead of delivering videotaped remarks from Washington, as was his original plan. She said she wasn’t expecting the event to be a debate. “The Bar Association event and the way that Kevin Yoder showed up to that—it was an example of him playing games. The format was set and predetermined and then in an attempt to play games he tried to show up and change the format. And that wasn’t agreed to,” Davids said. “That’s not how debates get set up. The Kansas City Star has a debate on Oct. 29, and I’ve agreed to a debate already.” (At the event, a Johnson County Bar Association official said that Davids told the group that she was going to try and make it and didn’t inform them of her absence until the last minute.)
A Davids spokeswoman added that, given the late primary, the candidate has been spending much of her time introducing herself to local elected officials and political stakeholders—forcing her to miss a few public events. “I’m a first-time candidate going against someone who’s a four-term incumbent,” said Davids.
Yoder, targeting his opponent’s vulnerability, has been touting his busy campaign schedule in the district. He repeatedly called her a “ghost of a candidate” and said her absence from the bar-association forum was “disrespectful to the voters.”
“National Democrats have her in a witness-protection program. They know she’s too liberal for the district. They know she’s unfamiliar with the issues,” Yoder told National Journal. “Her team is protecting her from shooting herself in the foot with a comment that would expound her radical beliefs. They think they can cash in on a wave without having to campaign for votes.”
Those missteps from a first-time candidate aren’t derailing Davids’ momentum—at least not yet. Independent voters are eager to cast a ballot to put a check on Trump, and Davids is the beneficiary of that suburban anger. The state’s competitive governor’s race, between Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly and polarizing Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is expected to galvanize Democratic turnout in the district. In a nod to how unpopular President Trump is in suburban Kansas City, Yoder skipped the president’s rally in nearby Topeka this weekend even though other GOP congressional nominees attended. “I had a previous event Saturday. If he comes to Kansas City, I’ll be there,” Yoder said.
That anti-Trump sentiment is coursing far beyond the suburbs of Kansas City, putting the neighboring reliably-Republican 2nd District in play. The state’s frustration with eight years of deeply conservative rule is apparent across the state, where Kelly is running competitively with Kobach in the governor’s race. For a state that was once famously rebuked by a progressive author for voting against its interests, this is shaping up to be the strongest Democratic year in Kansas since 2006.
“Lots of Republicans are telling me that they’re voting Democratic for the first time in their lives,” said state Sen. Lynn Rogers, a former Republican who is Kelly’s running mate. “Both Sharice and Laura know we’re in a mess and we need two strong women to clean things up.”