LAWRENCE, Kan. — Paul Davis says he’s frustrated, but he doesn’t really show it.
Sitting at a wooden desk in his campaign office in downtown Lawrence, the bespectacled Democratic congressional hopeful matter-of-factly states that he’s irked by Republican efforts to tie him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But he quickly pivoted to money in politics.
“It’s frustrating because you have a super PAC that’s funded by billionaires that don’t live here,” Davis said. “And whenever that happens, I think the voices of everyday Kansans get drowned out.”
“I stated on the very first day that I got into this campaign that I wasn’t going to support Nancy Pelosi,” he later said in an interview here Monday. “And what they are implying is directly contrary to what my position is.”
Davis faces Republican Steve Watkins in November in Kansas’ 2nd District, a seat that opened after GOP incumbent Lynn Jenkins announced her retirement. And Democrats believe their nominee has put the seat in play this year.
The day after the Kansas primary earlier this month, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, launched a television ad tying Davis, a former state House minority leader, to Pelosi.
The group has done the same in a slew of other races, dusting off a familiar playbook of tying Democrats to a leader whom Republicans view as polarizing and unpopular. CLF has launched Pelosi-themed attacks even against candidates like Davis, who have said they won’t support her for leader. The ads say these candidates will support Pelosi’s agenda anyway.
“The idea that failed liberal politician Paul Davis would do anything other than be a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi’s out-of-touch agenda in Congress is absolutely laughable,” said CLF spokeswoman Courtney Alexander, citing Kansas legislative tracking rankings that showed Davis voting with the majority of Democrats more than 91 percent of the time in the state house.
But Davis, like these other Democrats in GOP-leaning districts, argues that he’s willing to break with his party. And he does’t think the Pelosi playbook will work this time.
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A competitive race?
On the surface, this Eastern Kansas district — which includes rural farm communities, the state capital of Topeka and Kansas City suburbs — is a tough target for Democrats. President Donald Trump carried it by 18 points in 2016.
But Jenkins’ retirement combined with Davis’ strength as a candidate and a potential drag with Republican Kris Kobach at the top of the ticket has raised Democrats’ hopes. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.
First, Davis, like other candidates across the country, has to counter attempts to tie him to the national party.
He responded to the CLF ad with a spot of his own, saying he didn’t support Pelosi. Two of Davis’ former GOP colleagues in the state House also defended him in the Topeka Capital-Journal after the CLF ad came out. They vouched for his bipartisanship in the Legislature, with one calling him “one of the most bipartisan or nonpartisan legislators I ever dealt with.”
(Lobbyist expenditure reports shared with Roll Call show that Davis lobbied that GOP state lawmaker who vouched for him back when he was a lobbyist for the Kansas Bar Association. The reports show spending for dinner, lunch and golf.)
The question for Davis is whether he can keep the focus on local issues and his own record while national dynamics swirl around the race.
Davis said he is stressing his ties to the district and his willingness to work with both parties to address issues relating to health care, prescription drug costs, the economy and tariffs that could hurt the agricultural industry in the district.
He was first appointed to the state House in 2002, and served as the minority leader from 2009 to 2015. He carried the 2nd District during his narrow loss for governor in 2014, so he already has high name ID. And he has a sizable campaign war chest with $942,000 on hand as of July 18, the end of the pre-primary reporting period.
But Watkins, his GOP opponent, plans to use his political experience against him.
“I’m a political outsider going up against a career politician,” Watkins said in a recent interview at a coffee shop in Kansas City, Missouri. (He was in the area after dropping his wife off at the airport.)
Watkins won a crowded GOP primary Aug. 7 with just 26 percent of the vote as the only candidate who hadn’t held elected office. He said uniting Republicans has been one of his immediate tasks, along with fundraising and building his campaign team.
Watkins’ campaign had just $125,000 on hand at July 18, but his father has been willing to spend to support his son, financing a super PAC that was active in the primary.
An Afghanistan War veteran who later worked as an independent defense contractor overseas, Watkins faced questions about his conservative credentials in the primary after news broke that he had met with Democrats before announcing his run.
Watkins denies he ever considered running for Congress as a Democrat, and said he took the meeting with a transportation lobbyist to learn more about that policy area. He also touted a statement from Dan Crenshaw, a Republican Navy SEAL running for Congress in Texas, who vouched for his conservatism. The two are close friends and were classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Newcomer vs. known commodity
The criticism Watkins received in the primary highlights a problem for him: He doesn’t have a record in the state to prove his conservatism. He returned to the district after roughly two decades away — he left the Topeka area after high school to attend West Point.
Watkins said an injury he suffered while working as an independent contractor in Afghanistan caused him to rethink his career — and his sister suggested electoral politics. He declined to say how he was injured, citing “personal reasons.”
He admits he was not well-versed in politics while focused on his work, and so he decided to go to Harvard. He moved back to Kansas’ 2nd District after graduating from Harvard in 2017, and decided to run after Jenkins retired.
Watkins was criticized in the primary for only registering to vote in the district last year. He did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, and said he believed he was most recently registered to vote as an independent in Alaska.
Davis conceded that Watkins’ outsider profile might appeal to some voters, but he sees his opponent’s time away from the district as a negative.
“I think by and large people want to have somebody who knows them and knows their communities,” Davis said. “It’s very difficult for somebody who has been in Alaska for the last couple of decades to suddenly show up on the scene in Kansas and understand what’s going on in our communities and what people really want to see in Washington.”
Davis stresses his bipartisanship, saying he specifically wants to work with Republicans on drug prices and transportation issues if elected to Congress.
But Watkins said he heard from Republican voters that they want an outsider “to help Donald Trump drain the swamp.” He wants to keep the seat in GOP hands, and part of that involves tying Davis to Pelosi and national Democrats.
Asked about Davis’ pledge not to support Pelosi, Watkins leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“Of course, he’d say that,” the GOP nominee said. “He wants to get elected. But it’s not true. … If given the opportunity he’s going to side with Nancy Pelosi, not Kansans.”
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