There isn’t always an easy way for a politician to stand out at a parade.
But here’s Kevin Yoder trying his best to do just that, running a little behind schedule on this September morning, pushing a stroller with his young daughter in it, waving to supporters, making sure to shake the hand of an older man wearing the bright red Make America Great Again hat that has become the symbol for GOP nominee Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House.
Yoder looks every bit like a Republican who thinks he’s going to return to the nation’s capitol for a fourth term to represent the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas.
“Nationally, and locally, we’re a very divided community,” Yoder said before racing around the Overland Park Fall Festival. “We’re trying to bring people together and heal some of those wounds.”
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Down the street, someone sees Yoder’s opponent and shouts, “Go Democrats!”
And soon Democrat Jay Sidie, the political novice, pops into view, trying to hand out a campaign sticker to every person he sees, stopping for so long that he can’t even keep up with the Democrats’ parade group.
“Who wants my sticker?” the 59-year-old asks again and again, up and down the parade route.
“I’m running against Kevin Yoder. Trying to keep the schools open.”
By the time he makes it to the end of the parade, Sidie is sweating through parts of his shirt, and his campaign is pushing him to leave for the day’s next event.
Whether days like this will translate to votes, or a competitive race, is still unclear to the political newcomer, whose pitch to voters sounds like he’s running for the Kansas Legislature rather than a congressional seat.
“I think the insiders know that my race is competitive,” Sidie said once he’d given up on the stickers. “It’s the people that aren’t very politically active that I have to get out in front of, and that’s why I’m doing stuff like this.”
But that was before the Donald Trump tape, before America heard him talking about acts that amount to sexual assault, before Republicans started to flee the nominee, before more allegations surfaced that continued to cloud the election picture. And it was before Yoder stuck with his support of Trump, releasing a short statement that followed the formula of other prominent Republicans.
Condemn the man’s comments. Don’t condemn the candidate.
And as more allegations surfaced, and Trump’s campaign took a nose dive, Yoder didn’t budge on his support.
At first, Yoder didn’t want Trump.
He said he liked Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who was once seen as the future of the GOP, and many other candidates better. Instead, he got Trump. And he’s stuck with him.
There’s fear now that Trump may drag Yoder down with him in the 3rd District. The executive director of the Kansas GOP, Clay Barker, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Hillary Clinton wins there. And in Johnson County, which both Yoder and Sidie call home, Trump has struggled with voters.
“I think there’s a lot of worry that Republican turnout could crater,” said Kyle Kondik, who studies House races for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “And those are votes that not only Trump loses, but also someone like Yoder loses.”
And recently, money seemed to flood into northeast Kansas almost overnight.
Outside spending in the race, according to reports, has jumped to more than $1.8 million. And Federal Election Commission records show that Yoder has raised almost $2.5 million, while Sidie has raised around $380,000.
Patrick Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said the district is similar to a handful of others across the country where the Democratic challengers are doing better than expected, probably because of Trump’s tumultuous campaign.
“Every Republican incumbent, they’re going to have to do this strange Kabuki dance around Trump,” Miller said, pointing to signs that Trump is holding onto his base. “If you abandon Trump, you do alienate some of those people.”
In some ways, Sidie and Trump don’t sound so different at times. Both tout their outsider statuses, slam their opponents as career politicians and point to what they see as corruption and abuse in government.
In early September, Sidie still looked like a moonshot for Democrats hoping to pick up House seats.
Since then, the pitch has been refined, the spotlight has grown.
Sidie’s business background, which is in the financial field, has also drawn scrutiny from Republicans.
A new handler, Missouri campaign veteran Shawn Borich, arrived in August to help Sidie.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started paying attention to the race. They brought their wallets with them.
A candidate can tout his outsider status as much as he wants. But the ins and outs of a political campaign aren’t easy for people who’ve never run for office before, especially in a congressional race. Even the most determined outsider has to turn to people within the party for help.
In September, just a few months after Sidie quietly filed for the race, he was still talking up his outsider status, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted Yoder, tying him to everything from Gov. Sam Brownback’s economic policies to the GOP presidential nominee himself.
Sidie said he got into politics because he saw the state’s economy and public schools declining. Yoder’s campaign has slammed him for not voting in bond elections that focused on school funding.
If elected, Sidie said his core goal would be education funding, so that everyone can get an education, regardless of economic status. He didn’t give details of how that would be accomplished.
Sidie’s critics point to the fact that the state, not the federal government, has more of a focus on education funding in Kansas.
Sidie said he also would try to work on “the big corrupt money coming into our political system.”
On guns, he said that weapons are in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and that “better regulations” are needed.
And on the financial industry, he said, “If I was in Congress, I’d be looking to regulate people, like the payday lenders, from becoming parasites on our district.”
Usually an easy path
The last three elections weren’t exactly nail-biters for Yoder.
In less than two decades in public life, the 40-year-old Republican has quickly moved from KU law school graduate to state representative and then to young U.S. congressman.
Yoder said his tenure in Washington has focused on reducing spending, slowing the growth of government and maintaining national defense.
Miller, the KU professor, said a data analysis of the current members of the state’s congressional House delegation shows they are the most conservative members of Congress the state has sent to Washington since 1990.
Tim Huelskamp, the congressman from the 1st District who recently lost a primary race, was the most conservative. Yoder was the second.
That distinction comes at the same time that Johnson County swung more moderate during the August primary election.
Yoder even praised the district recently for having what he called “an independent streak.”
The congressman drew praise earlier this year for his work on the Email Privacy Act that requires the government to get a court warrant before going through private emails. It passed the House unanimously, a rare thing in today’s narrative of gridlock and congressional discontent, only to then stall in the Senate.
Democrats have faulted Yoder at other times, including during his push in 2014 to amend part of the Dodd-Frank financial law, which critics said could create a bailout for big banks, as well as for donations he has received that have ties to the payday loan industry.
State Sen. Greg Smith, a Republican who lost a re-election campaign to a moderate in the August primary, has worked with Yoder on the federal version of the Kelsey Smith Act. The legislation, named after Smith’s daughter who was abducted and killed in 2007, would help authorities find someone’s location through their cellphone if there’s enough reason to believe they are facing an emergency.
The legislation has stalled in Washington, but Smith said the congressman is well rounded in the issues he deals with.
“This whole election cycle has been strange,” Smith said. “And I think that there’s kind of an anti-incumbency mood out there, regardless of the record of the person running.”
A different year
In an email Friday, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, endorsed Sidie.
“We need a well-rounded leader who, as a businessman and parent, will be in our corner of Congress,” Sebelius said. “Jay Sidie will make sure the Brownback/Yoder era come to an end before more damage is inflicted on the Sunflower State.”
Yoder had already planned to hold a meet and greet that same day, where former GOP presidential nominee and former Sen. Bob Dole praised the young congressman.
Everyone from longtime GOP members to Kansas Legislature hopefuls crammed into the Johnson County Republican Party headquarters where Dole waxed poetic about the area and mentioned Yoder as a worthy successor.
“We are traditional Republicans, conservatives,” Dole said. “Which doesn’t mean we’re way off in right field like Ted Cruz or somebody like that.”
But with the election just a couple weeks away, Yoder, who has never received less than 58 percent of the vote in his previous general election runs for Congress, said any Democrat could be competitive in this unusual election year.