Politics

Safety a Concern Ahead of Trump Rally for Competitive Kansas House Races

President in Topeka Saturday to rally Republicans in what protest organizer calls ‘highly charged’ environment

The crowd reacts as President Donald Trump walks to the podium to speak at a campaign rally on Thursday in Rochester, Minnesota. Trump is holding another rally Saturday for congressional candidates in two close House races along with a tight gubernatorial race. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump will appear in Topeka, Kansas, Saturday night to rally support for candidates in two competitive House races and gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach. But organizers of a large counter demonstration are concerned about public safety.

Police will corral demonstrators onto sidewalks sandwiched between traffic on a four-lane road and metal fencing more typically used to enclose livestock, the Topeka-Capital Journal  reported.

Demonstrators will split between the north side of the venue in a space designated for Trump supporters and the south side in a space designated for Trump opponents.

“People have strong feelings about Trump and Kobach, either good or bad. Not many people are in the middle. You put those two groups in a space like this, in the course of last year or two we’ve seen this doesn’t always lead to good things,” said Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, an organizer.

“We’ve seen a Trump supporter drive into a group of people,” she said, referring to the slaying of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., last year.

Previously, police had stated a grassy area outside the arena would be available for protests, but backtracked Wednesday, and have now designated the area for overflow parking. Space will depend largely on turnout, which is uncertain, organizers say. While Saturday’s rally marks the president’s first visit to the state since his election, the weather is forecast to be rainy. 

Oglesby-Dunegan said organizers worry about the possibility of being in a tight environment against the backdrop of the state’s sometimes “highly charged” races for two high stakes  House seats and the governor’s mansion. The election in Kansas has touched on a number of issues that can be deeply personal to voters, including health care and immigration. 

Trump will boost GOP candidate Steve Watkins in his bid against Democrat Paul Davis for the 2nd District seat being vacated by Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who is retiring. 

Trump won the district by 18 points in 2016, but Watkins has been damaged by recent questions about his background. Watkins said he “started a small business and grew it from three people to 470 people,” but recent reporting by the Kansas City Star has raised questions about that claim. The paper found no public records indicating Watkins ever owned a stake in VIAP Inc., a construction management and engineering company. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee debuted an ad on Friday hitting Watkins on those questions. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 2nd District race a Toss-up

In the neighboring 3rd District, Rep. Kevin Yoder trailed his Democratic opponent, first-time candidate Sharice Davids, in a September New York Times/Siena College poll in a race that Inside Elections rates Tilt Democratic.

Yoder said he’ll skip the rally, citing a scheduling conflict, the Kansas City Star reported.  While Trump has endorsed Yoder, the candidate has sought to distance himself from Trump’s child separation policy, which he previously supported. Hillary Clinton won the district by a narrow margin over Trump in 2016.

Democrats hope Kobach, the state’s attorney general and a Trump ally, could be a drag for Republicans in  down-ballot races. He is one of the least popular politicians in the state — a poll in the spring showed his approval rating at -17.

He became a national lightning rod when he became co-chair of Trump’s voter fraud task force, which folded without presenting any evidence of the widespread voter fraud that Trump had claimed.

A loss in both districts would seriously jeopardize Republicans’ hold on the House.

Watch: Trump Has 3 Prime-Time Rallies This Week. Here’s What We’re Watching

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