BONNER SPRINGS, Kan. — When it comes to battlegrounds for the midterm elections, Kansas might not be the first place that comes to mind. But the fight for control of the House is well underway in the Kansas City suburbs.
Rep. Kevin Yoder was confronted with his re-election dilemma here while crisscrossing the street as the sun beat down on the Tiblow Days parade one Saturday last month.
Applause, high-fives and a few cheers of “Yay, Kevin!” greeted the Republican congressman along the parade route. At one point a man named Michael (he declined to give his full name) stopped him to talk about gun violence.
Yoder said he explained to Michael that he supported strengthening background checks and enhancing school safety. But the self-described independent voter wasn’t convinced.
“I think he makes statements and then doesn’t follow through,” Michael said as Yoder walked away, adding that he probably wouldn’t support him for re-election.
Yoder had plenty of supporters at the parade, but the exchange underscored that he has a fight on his hands as one of 25 House Republicans running in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
That makes Kansas’ 3rd District a quintessential Democratic target — it’s suburban and well-educated. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Yoder’s race against Democratic lawyer Sharice Davids Tilts Republican.
Whether the incumbent holds on this year could help determine if the 2016 result was a one-time rejection of Donald Trump, or if the president has sparked a broader rejection of Republicans down the ballot.
The race could also determine whether the support boosting female Democrats in primaries across the country extends to general election. Davids could make history as Congress’ first openly gay person to represent Kansas, and one of its first Native American female members.
But as a first-time candidate, she is already on defense over recent remarks about abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. And Yoder has called the former mixed martial arts fighter “the most radical liberal that’s ever been nominated for Congress in the history of the 3rd District,” citing her support for a single-payer health care system.
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A swing seat?
The district does have some history of electing Democrats. Moderate Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore held the seat for six terms before Yoder’s election in 2010.
“The 3rd has kind of evolved into a classic 50/50 district but it’s got a lot of Republican muscle memory,” said Howard Bauleke, who was Moore’s chief of staff. “Dennis and Kevin Yoder both really had to walk a tightrope there.”
Yoder described the district as “center-right,” noting that Clinton only carried it by 1 point with 47 percent of the vote, while the district backed Mitt Romney by 10 points in 2012.
For Davids, it’s a district that’s ready for a change.
“Kansas is not just [former GOP Gov.] Sam Brownback. It’s not just Kris Kobach,” she told a group of volunteers in Kansas City on a Sunday last month, referring to this year’s GOP nominee for governor.
“We are way more diverse in our experience and our openness and inclusion than people might realize,” Davids said. “We know it and we’re out knocking on doors to make sure everybody else knows it.”
Volunteers had showed up to canvass for Davids, with several first-timers among them.
Dennis Nicely, a 69-year-old retired banker from Overland Park, supported high school teacher Tom Niermann in the Democratic primary, but wanted to hit the streets for Davids for a specific reason.
“The reason I’m here physically working is because during the last votes to repeal Obamacare I went to Kevin Yoder’s office and I told them, ‘If you vote without even trying to do a replacement, I will actively work against you,’” Nicely recalled.
Several House Republicans facing competitive races voted against the GOP bill to undo much of the 2010 health care law. Yoder wasn’t among them. He also supported the Republican tax overhaul. Democrats believe both votes will be damaging.
Yoder said he’s been willing to buck his party and Trump, citing his statement opposing the administration’s actions separating families illegally crossing the southern border.
But he does have to balance between breaking with Trump when necessary while not to alienating the president’s supporters.
So far he had not turned off Terry Ferris, a pastor and ardent Trump backer who attended the parade.
“He is conservative, he is pro-gun, he is pro-life, he is pro-family,” Ferris, 46, said of Yoder. “And he’s for lowering my taxes, so 100 percent, [I] support him.”
Yoder noted after the parade that he works with Trump “to get things done but I always put my district first.”
“And I contrast that with the left in this election that is focused on impeachment and resistance and obstruction,” Yoder said.
Davids on defense
Davids has pushed back on charges that she is too liberal for the district.
“When I think about what opportunity looks like, it looks like inclusion and it looks like listening to people and it looks like us focusing on education,” she said in an interview in her campaign’s field office. “That’s all I can do is just keep pushing forward, regardless of if somebody thinks all that stuff is too liberal.”
But she has been on defense in recent weeks over comments about ICE that Yoder cited as evidence of her “radical” positions.
At the end of an exchange on immigration in a podcast before the August primary, the host asked if she supported abolishing the ICE. She responded, “I do, I would, I would support — well, you asked me about defunding, which I think is probably, essentially, the same thing, but yeah.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, used that audio in a television ad.
Asked about her position, Davids said last month, “I’m not advocating that we abolish ICE or defund ICE. … We need comprehensive immigration reform.”
She said she used the word “yeah” as a conversation filler, and was not indicating that she supports abolishing the agency.
“I was saying what I thought he was trying to get at when I said, ‘I think what you’re saying is the same thing.’ Because he asked two different questions,” Davids said. “It just felt very taken out of context. And I just don’t support abolishing ICE.”
Yoder also called out Davids for not pushing back when the podcast host questioned her about dismantling “this white supremacist immigration system.”
Davids said she did not agree with that characterization, adding, "If every time somebody asked me questions, if I spent my time pushing back on the framing of the question, I would spend more time doing that than anything else."
Her campaign later followed up with an additional statement from the candidate: “No, I don’t agree with framing the question that way. But I do think our immigration system is broken, and that Kevin Yoder has done nothing to fix it.”
Davids has since responded with an ad of her own, speaking directly to the camera and saying, “I don’t support abolishing ICE.” On Thursday, Yoder’s campaign launched its own TV spot, saying Davids was “caught in a lie about abolishing ICE.”
The back and forth sparked in part by the CLF ad has underscored the role that outside groups could play in the race.
CLF, which opened a field office in the district last September, has reserved $1.4 million in airtime here, with other groups following suit.
Two days after the primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched a TV ad saying Yoder is in the pocket of special interests. The group has reserved more than $1.1 million in district airtime, according to a source with knowledge of media buys.
McClatchy first reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee was reserving time in Kansas’ 3rd and 2nd districts, and Roll Call learned that it reserved just over $1 million in the 3rd alone.
EMILY’s List, which spent for Davids in the primary, is expected to invest in the general election. House Majority PAC, the CLF’s Democratic counterpart, has also reserved nearly $449,000 in the district so far.
As outside groups battle on the airwaves, Yoder and Davids also have a contentious gubernatorial race to deal with.
Kobach, the GOP nominee and a staunch Trump ally, rode ahead of Yoder in the parade here last month, perched atop a Jeep that featured an attached gun.
Yoder said Kobach could boost turnout among the Republican base, but Democrats say he would be a drag on the ticket. Democrats also believe the GOP brand in the state has been damaged by Brownback, whose unpopular tax plan led to education cuts.
On Tuesday, former Kansas GOP Gov. Bill Graves endorsed Kobach’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Laura Kelly. But will Republicans who reject Kobach also vote against other GOP candidates down the ballot?
Davids is betting they will, and is centering her campaign on listening to voters and casting Yoder as a congressman who is too far to the right.
But the incumbent doesn’t see that strategy working.
“It will have to take a tsunami of a blue wave for voters here to consider such a radical agenda,” Yoder said of his opponent.