OVERLAND PARK, Kan.
America would be a calmer, saner place if we had a lot more congressional districts like the one I live in, the Kansas 3rd.
Over the past generation, urban Democrats and suburban Republicans quietly agreed to carve out safe seats in Congress for one another, a bipartisan exercise in gerrymandering that stoked today’s polarization. When general elections no longer matter because districts are overwhelmingly red or blue, incumbents naturally move away from the center to fend off primary challengers. But the western reaches of Greater Kansas City were not carved up that way. This is a purple seat. Whoever seeks to win and hold the 3rd District must steer clear of controversy, work hard for constituents and hunt for the vanishing real estate known as middle ground.
But what happens when you drop the most polarizing figure in America into the politics of a purple district? Four-term incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) can answer that. For weeks, he has been bombarded with relentless replays of a TV ad in which President Trump’s praise for Yoder — “incredible guy!” — recycles again and again.
Yoder, a soft-spoken conservative who co-chairs the Congressional Civility Caucus, had what embattled politicians call “a scheduling conflict” when Trump visited nearby Topeka on Sunday. (Sorting his sock drawer?) As a result, Democrats did not get fresh video to add to their barrage. But in today’s climate, there’s no wriggling free: Yoder is a litmus test for Trump’s swing-district popularity, especially after the president’s allies pressured the congressman into giving up his effort to strike a moderate position on immigration. If House Republicans lose control of the chamber despite the robust economy, you can look to Yoder’s predicament to understand why.
His opponent, a first-time candidate named Sharice Davids, was virtually unknown just a few months ago. But a fresh face is appealing in a time of disgust and dismay. Davids has raised a ton of money and stirred a degree of enthusiasm rare for a midterm in these parts. After sizing her up last month, the National Republican Congressional Committee scrapped plans to spend $1.2 million on Yoder’s behalf.
Making the race doubly interesting is that Davids is not your typical Kansas candidate. Not in demographic terms, anyway. A young woman (38) who introduces her campaign with a video of her mixed martial arts training is something new for 3rd District voters. Add that she is Native American, lesbian and woke — and raises money by doing pushups on Facebook Live.
Other parts of her biography strike familiar chords of optimism and opportunity, though. Raised by a single mother — an Army drill sergeant at Fort Leavenworth — Davids worked her way from community college to Cornell Law School to the elite White House Fellows program.
A nonwhite woman from lower economic conditions — and who still carries student loan debt to go with her 1-1 record as a professional fighter — is “uncommon to see reflected in our government,” Davids told supporters at a recent event. She added, “We are resetting expectations of who runs for office. We get to do that — and we get to do it in Kansas.”
All of which raises the possibility that Davids is more wave than backlash. If Trump is an expression of anxiety over the changing face of America, as some political analysts argue, then her emergence may be an unintended consequence. Trumpism, far from impeding her rise, appears to be accelerating it.
From a dead start at a kitchen table last winter, Davids whipped a robust field of Democrats in the August primary. As word spread of her win nationally, the money began rolling in — almost all of it, according to a spokesperson, from small, individual donors. In the quarter that ended Sept. 30, Davids raised some $2.7 million, apparently a 3rd District record for a Democrat. Her campaign boasts 5,000 volunteers working to drive voter turnout. The Cook Political Report and other close observers say the race is leaning in her direction.
Davids is certainly behaving like a front-runner. After a rookie gaffe in which she said “I would” in response to a podcaster’s question about abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Davids insists she only seeks to “reform” the agency), she has kept to a cautious schedule and a careful script. She dropped out of a recent forum when she learned that Yoder would also be there and has agreed to only one debate, late in the game.
For this, Yoder calls Davids a “ghost candidate” while charging that she’s too liberal and “out of touch with this district.” But he also knows she’s not his only problem. As he put it during a recent Q&A with constituents, “People say, ‘I voted for you in the past. But I don’t like the president. So I’m not voting for you this time.’ ”
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