WICHITA — Jan Manlove had posted advertisements on Craigslist and planted signs on street corners. “GARAGE SALE,” they read, which was true, just not the full truth, because she needed people to show up.
Now she was standing outside a garage crammed with items for sale, ringing up a couple buying a basket, a belt, two leaf-shaped plates and a children’s book, unaware that the money they were about to hand over would go to the Sedgwick County Democratic Women.
The club helps Democrats run for office in Kansas — or “Deep-Red Kansas,” as Manlove, a 62-year-old retired Postal Service worker, often hears it called. Here, President Trump won by 20 points. The governor is a Republican. The mayor of Wichita is a Republican. The city’s most famous resident, Charles Koch, is a Republican mega-donor and a backer of the local congressman, Mike Pompeo, who Trump had recently picked to direct the CIA.
Two days before this garage sale, there was a special election to choose Pompeo’s replacement. A Republican won. But the election results showed that for the first time in more than two decades, Sedgwick County — home to Wichita, home to Koch Industries and home to Manlove — voted for the Democratic candidate, James Thompson, by two points. Here in Deep-Red Kansas, there was suddenly a smidgen of blue.
And so the newly optimistic Democrats were on to the next step: raising money for future campaigns. Even before congressional seats open again in 2018, there are school board positions and city council jobs to fight for.
“Grass roots, we learned it from the Kochs,” Manlove had said. With that in mind, she smiled at the couple at her cash box and calculated what they owed. Twenty-five cents per plate, a dollar for the children’s book, “The Golden History of the World.” The total came to $4.20.
“This is a fundraiser, if you want to make it an even five,” Manlove told the husband, Ken Raney, no way of knowing that when Raney got home and saw that the first chapter of the book was about evolution, he would throw it in the trash.
“What’s it fundraising for?” Raney’s wife asked.
“For Sedgwick County Democratic Women,” Manlove answered.
Raney looked surprised. “Then definitely not,” he said, and as Manlove handed back his change, Raney began to explain that the only reason Democrats performed better than expected in the special election was because of the governor and his 27 percent approval rating. It had nothing to do with Trump, he said.
“Every time Trump talks, I vomit,” Manlove told him.
“That’s how I felt about Obama!” Raney said.
“Tell me why.”
“The guy was a liar.”
“What did he lie about?”
Raney’s wife interrupted: “I think it’s time to go. We’re on a date. This is not how I wanted to spend my date.”
Manlove watched them leave, wondering whether she was too mean as more customers wandered in, including a man who paused at the most expensive item at the garage sale: a dresser set priced at $400.
Manlove recognized him as the owner of a downtown antiques store, and she thought he might be one of the county’s 71,310 registered Democrats, rather than one of its 115,930 registered Republicans. “This is a fundraiser for the Sedgwick County Democratic Women,” she said, taking a chance.
“If you had told me that, I wouldn’t be here,” the man said, and then he made an offer.
“Three hundred dollars.”
“Three fifty,” came the counter from Deb Shepard, the owner of the dresser, who also was volunteering at the garage sale.
“Three hundred,” the man repeated.
The dresser had been sitting in a storage unit since Shepard’s father had died at the end of 2015. She had meant to sell it, but last year, instead of dealing with his affairs, she threw herself into pursuing a longtime dream: running for office.
“Going once,” the man said.
She ran as a Democrat for the Kansas state legislature. She built her own parade float. She spent her evenings and weekends knocking on doors.
“Twice . . .”
She lost by 24 points.
So the dresser didn’t sell, but a plate with Dwight Eisenhower’s face on it did, and at the end of the first day of the three-day sale, the total was $958.
That evening, Manlove proudly reported the profits to the club members when they gathered for a monthly meeting at a buffet restaurant serving everything from chicken livers to Chinese food. None of them particularly liked the restaurant, but the banquet room fit all 38 members who showed up, and it was free to use, so here they were, surrounded by others who understood what it means to be a Democrat in Kansas:
“It’s like a cult almost,” one of them explained. “People are embarrassed to admit it.”
“We don’t talk about it to our families,” agreed 57-year-old Sherry Livingston, who recently peeled a “Sedgwick County Dems” bumper sticker off her car so she wouldn’t have to talk about it with her work clients, either.
Because of James Thompson, though, defeat was feeling as though it could turn to momentum, and 77-year-old club president Frances Jackson was determined to seize it. She knew that sometimes the best way to motivate people was to ask something of them, so after the Pledge of Allegiance and a presentation by an anthropologist about indigenous rights, she picked up a microphone and told the group, “I am saying to you, each one of you in this room: You can’t give up.”
She turned toward Livingston, who in 2014 had run for the state legislature and lost by 22 points. “I will be asking you again and again, Sherry, to run for office.”
Livingston smiled, and Jackson continued: “That will be the question I have for each one of you. What office are you running for?”
One woman told the group that her plan was to turn neighboring Kingman County, where Trump won 75 percent of the vote, “just a little bit purple.”
Another announced an upcoming training session on how to be a political candidate.
“We turned Sedgwick County blue,” another reminded the group. “So now we can even consider running for Sedgwick County Commission seats.”
Jackson took back the microphone and asked the women to applaud for those who spoke up.
“People say to me, ‘Oh, I can’t run for office,’ ” she said. “So I put both my hands on both their cheeks and I say: ‘Do you see who is president? Anybody can run for office.’ ”
The room filled with laughter, and applause broke out again.
On the second day of the garage sale, James Thompson was a few miles away, sitting in his pickup truck outside a storage rental facility and scrolling on his phone through another article about the election he had lost.
It said what he already knew: In an area Trump had won by 27 points, he had come within 7 points of becoming a congressman. Some were interpreting the results as a sign of Trump supporters feeling remorse. Others saw a Democratic Party that still couldn’t win over rural voters. Thompson kept scrolling until he came to a comment about Hillary Clinton: “After 46 years of voting Democrat, I did not support the Democratic candidate in 2016.” He shut off his phone and stepped out of his truck.
“It’s Hillary people blaming Bernie supporters, and Bernie supporters blaming Hillary,” he said. “It’s just like, ugh, for the love of God. This is why we’re not winning.”
From the parking lot he headed down a narrow driveway lined with roll-up garage doors.
“B-28, B-28. . . .” he said, looking for the garage he’d just rented to hold what remained of his campaign. “Let’s see. I actually haven’t been here before.”
He found his door, flagged down a moving truck, and watched as the movers unloaded “Fight for America” yard signs and boxes of thousands of leftover envelopes. The air mattress his staffers used for sleeping in the office had already been deflated. Here came desks, filing cabinets and chairs his staffers had found at auction for 60 cents apiece.
That was how he had furnished his campaign office, and meanwhile his opponent Ron Estes had been backed by dozens of PACs and prominent figures, including the president of Koch Industries. The congressional seat they had competed for was sometimes referred to as “the congressman from Koch.” The name Koch is everywhere in Wichita: on the basketball arena, the arts center, even the orangutan exhibit at the zoo.
Estes also received support from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent $130,000 promoting his candidacy, while Thompson got no money at all from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Despite that, in the days just before the election, internal polling showed Thompson behind by just one point — at which point Republicans flew in Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) to Wichita for a rally and a robo-call of Trump dialed up voters to say, “Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly.”
On Election Day, the polls closed at 7 p.m.; by 9:43 p.m., the race had been called for Estes; and now, several days later, Thompson was sure of a crucial reason: money.
“My average donation was $20,” he said. “His is like one thousand or something.”
“All of this going into the unit?” the movers asked, and Thompson looked up to see that everything in the truck had been emptied.
“Yeah,” he said, picking up a box of leftover envelopes to take home. He planned to write thank-you notes to all the first-time voters and volunteers. The 2018 election was less than 19 months away.
Day Three at the garage sale, the final day, and there were hundreds of items left: lawn chairs and coffee pots, board games with missing pieces, and cheese knives shaped like fruits. The volunteers were tired of haggling. The forecast was calling for rain.
But coming up the driveway were three more customers. All of them were Democrats, and all had met last year when they were running for office.
“I played to win, but I knew I was going to lose,” said Tony Hunter, who ran for state Senate and lost by 33 points to a Republican whose campaign outspent his 14 to 1.
“I developed a thick skin,” said Clifton Beck, who ran for the state House with a campaign fund of $575, $100 of it from his wife.
“I did better than anyone thought I would,” said Susan Osborne, who in her campaign for the state House carried her Shih Tzu-bichon mix door to door, hoping Republicans would want to pet him.
The three of them rummaged through what remained and purchased two storage boxes, two paperback books and one “80’s Replay” CD for a total of $11.
“Twelve dollars in checks,” Manlove said, counting what was in the cash box as the garage sale neared its final moments. “$34 in ones . . .”
She remembered the $200 of her own money she’d placed in the box on the sale’s first day, to make change, and decided to leave it. “For the stuff I took home,” she said.
Frances Jackson, the club president, stopped calculating how much she owed for her purchases and wrote a check for $250.
“If we lose,” she said, thinking of the people she had been encouraging to run for office, “I don’t want it to be because we don’t have any money.”
Deb Shepard, the owner of the dresser set, which soon would be headed to her spare bedroom, decided to buy something, too: an old boombox they had been using to play a James Taylor CD. She handed over $20, and with that, the sale came to an end.
Manlove closed the cash box and carried it to her car. At the club’s next meeting, she would get to announce the total: $1,775.44. That would surely prompt long, loud applause. Then, the Sedgwick County Democratic Women would strategize about what to do next.