U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders will make his third trip to Kansas in three years Friday when he campaigns for two progressive candidates with events in Wichita and Kansas City, Kan.
“You’ve got a beautiful state. I like it very much,” said Sanders, a Vermont independent who won the Kansas Democratic presidential caucus by more than 30 percentage points in 2016.
His return to the state after previous trips to Lawrence and Topeka in recent years comes the same week that President Donald Trump waded into the race for Kansas’ 3rd congressional district by announcing on Twitter his endorsement of incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder.
In the same race, Sanders has thrown his support behind Brent Welder, a Bonner Springs lawyer who served as a Missouri delegate for Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Sanders will headline a rally Friday evening for Welder at the Reardon Convention Center in Kansas City, Kan., three weeks ahead of the six-way Democratic primary.
“I think Brent is somebody who has shown through his life’s work that he supports the progressive agenda and that he understands the importance of grassroots in politics,” Sanders said.
Welder’s rhetoric on the campaign trail has often echoed Sanders’ talking points from the 2016 campaign, including outspoken support for the Vermont senator’s “Medicare for All” proposal.
Sanders contended that 63 percent of Americans support the idea, a figure that appears to come from a 2016 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“It is not a radical idea,” Sanders said. “Health care for all is what exists in every other major country on Earth. It exists 60 miles from where I live, in Canada. It exists around Europe. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage, 15 bucks an hour, is not a radical idea. Pay equity for women is not a radical idea.”
In Wichita, he’ll campaign for Democrat James Thompson, an attorney who mounted a surprisingly competitive bid for the seat in Kansas’ 4th congressional district in a special election last year.
“I was very impressed with the campaign that Thompson ran on the special election. As you know, that district is a district that Trump carried overwhelmingly, but James ran a very, very strong campaign and I think he ended up doing a lot better than people expected,” Sanders said. “And I think if he has the kind of grassroots support, the financial support that he needs, then I think he could win that election.”
If Thompson prevails in the Democratic primary against Laura Lombard, he’ll have a rematch with Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Estes in the fall.
The rally at Century II in Wichita will take place in the home district of Charles Koch, a Wichita billionaire and Republican megadonor who has often been an object of Sanders’ scorn on the campaign trail.
Sanders said the Koch family’s presence did not factor into his decision to become involved in the race, but he agreed it would add an extra significance if a Democrat wins the seat for the first time 25 years.
“I don’t think the people of Kansas or the people of Vermont or the people anywhere in this country think that it is appropriate that a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers can spend some $400 million in this 2018 election cycle to elect candidates to represent the wealthy and the powerful, so I think a defeat of the Koch brothers, if you like, would be a very symbolic victory,” he said.
Bill Riggs, a spokesman for Americans For Prosperity, the Koch network’s main political arm, said the $400 million the network plans to spend this cycle will go toward supporting ballot initiatives and other advocacy efforts rather than just candidates.
“If Bernie Sanders wants to deliver a real victory for all Americans, we’d encourage him to work with lawmakers from both parties to end corporate welfare, stop wasteful spending, provide a pathway for Dreamers, and give a second chance to those stuck in our broken prison system. That’s what we’re doing,” Riggs said.
At both rallies, Sanders will be joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York who gained national attention when she defeated longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary on a platform that includes abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Winning in Kansas will help prove that the majority of Americans are with us on the policies. Americans support Medicare for All, expanding Social Security benefits, gun reform, debt-free college, and a $15 minimum wage,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a Wednesday fundraising email for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Sanders was one of the few national politicians to back Ocasio-Cortez over Crowley in the New York primary.
In determining which candidates to back this cycle, Sanders said he evaluates whether they’ll represent the needs of working families and whether they’ll mount grassroots campaign.
“We don’t want to be supportive of candidates who simply raise money from the wealthy and then put 30-second ads on TV. We want to see people involving people in their communities,” he said.
Estes’ campaign criticized Thompson for bringing “the face of socialism to Kansas” and attacked Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez as “the lunatic fringe of the extremist left pushing for socialist policies like raising taxes, abortion on demand and abolishing ICE.”
Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez describe themselves as democratic socialists, a political label which is common in Europe.
Yoder’s campaign did not immediately weigh in on Sanders’ visit to the Johnson County Republican’s district.