Government & Politics

Democrats’ ‘weak bench’ in Kansas makes Paul Davis a popular candidate — for two races

Democrat Paul Davis lost to Sam Brownback in the 2014 race for Kansas governor. Now, the Lawrence attorney is contemplating whether he should run for governor again or enter the race for Congress in Kansas’ 2nd district.
Democrat Paul Davis lost to Sam Brownback in the 2014 race for Kansas governor. Now, the Lawrence attorney is contemplating whether he should run for governor again or enter the race for Congress in Kansas’ 2nd district. Associated Press file photo

When Paul Davis drops his daughter off for school, the other parents approach and tell him what they think he should do with his future.

Davis, a Lawrence attorney who served 12 years in the Kansas House, lost a contentious race for governor in 2014 by 4 percentage points as Republicans swept every statewide office and congressional seat in Kansas for the second straight midterm election.

A decade ago, Kansas Democrats held the governor’s office and a pair of congressional seats, but since 2010 Republicans have dominated in statewide and federal races.

Now, the Democrats’ strategic plan sets an ambitious goal of capturing the governor’s office, two congressional seats and a majority in the Kansas House by 2020. Davis, who served as minority leader in the Kansas House, is seen as a top prospect to achieve two of those goals.

“It’s hard to go much anywhere without having somebody approach me about what I should do in 2018,” said Davis, whose name has been bandied about by party operatives from Wichita to Washington as a top prospect for 2018 when Kansans will elect a new governor and hold mid-term congressional elections with President Donald Trump in the White House.

Kerry Gooch, the state party’s executive director, acknowledged that one reason for that is that Davis is one of the only Democrats with statewide name recognition.

“Yeah, we do have a very weak bench as the Democratic Party in Kansas…one reason why Paul’s name always jumps to the top of the list,” Gooch said.

Missouri Democrats face a similar situation. Former Secretary of State Jason Kander lost a tight race for U.S. Senate against Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016 but remains a prospect for another run in the future.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed both Kansas’ 2nd and 3rd congressional districts on a list of 59 seats it would target as Democrats attempt to recapture the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, represents the 3rd district.

No Missouri districts were included on the DCCC’s list of targets.

A faction of party activists in Kansas are encouraging Davis to make another run at the governor’s office, but Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins’ January announcement that she won’t seek re-election to the 2nd district has fueled an effort to recruit Davis to run for the open seat in 2018.

Davis said he’s “very interested in being on the ballot in 2018,” but hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for congress or make another bid for the governor’s mansion. He’s been traveling the state seeking input as he weighs the decision.

The 2nd congressional district stretches from northeast Kansas to the Oklahoma border and includes Davis’ hometown of Lawrence, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds. Davis beat Gov. Sam Brownback in the district by 6 percentage points in 2014 and Democrat Nancy Boyda held the seat for two years before losing to Jenkins in 2008.

The state party did not steer significant resources toward congressional races in the past two elections, but Davis said “there’s definitely a greater focus on congressional races than I’ve seen in quite some time.”

Davis said he wants to watch what develops in Washington and Topeka over the next several months before he makes a decision, but he could face pressure to commit to one or the other when the Kansas Democratic Party meets this weekend for its annual Washington Days convention. Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer announced his campaign for governor this week and former Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty has also expressed interest in a run.

“The pressure’s high for someone to decide pretty quickly so other candidates can figure out what to do,” said Chris Reeves, Kansas’ Democratic National Committeeman.

Brewer said his decision to announce early was not influenced by the prospect of other candidates.

It’s unclear at this point who the Democrats will find to challenge Yoder in the the 3rd district, which includes Johnson and Wyandotte counties. Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore held the seat from 1999 to 2011.

“Some great candidates have reached out and conversations are ongoing,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the DCCC, without providing specific names.

Jay Sidie, a Mission Woods businessman who challenged Yoder in the last election, said “there’s a strong likelihood” he’ll run again after losing to Yoder by 11 percentage points in 2016.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said he’s doubtful of the Democrats’ chances in the 3rd congressional district as long as Yoder stays in the seat and doesn’t pursue a run at the governor’s office.

“Hillary won the 3rd district, but Yoder won fairly handily,” Beatty said. The 2nd congressional district, on the other hand, is wide open, he said.

Howard Bauleke, who served as Moore’s chief of staff during his time in congress, said that Davis, who already has strong name recognition and a statewide fundraising network, is wise to wait.

“Obviously, he’d be a strong candidate for either position. And as usual the Democratic potential candidate field is pretty sparse,” Bauleke said. “It’s smart of him to keep his options open.”

Bauleke said the state’s political landscape could shift if either Brownback or Kansas Secretary of Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a potential GOP candidate for governor, wind up with roles in Trump’s administration.

“It’s unclear still who a lot of the players on the political board are going to be 18 months from now,” Bauleke said.

Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he thinks the GOP can maintain its dominance, but he noted that neither party has ever been able to hold the Kansas governor’s office for three terms since the state switched to four-year terms in 1975.

“It’s always flipped,” Barker said, warning that Republicans will face the curse of history. In congressional races, the biggest variable the GOP will face will be Trump’s popularity, Barker said.

The Democratic Party hasn’t had a gubernatorial primary in Kansas since 1998 when state Rep. Tom Sawyer easily defeated Fred Phelps, the head of the Westboro Baptist Church. And the party hasn’t had a competitive primary since 1990 when then-Treasurer Joan Finney defeated former Gov. John Carlin on her way to the governor’s mansion, Beatty said.

Davis’ campaign trail prediction that the state was headed for a financial cliff came true less than a week after the 2014 election. The state has faced a cycle of budget gaps, cuts and tax increases since the vote.

“I have people who come up to me and say, ‘I supported Sam Brownback and I really regret it,’ ” he said.

But he’s also aware of the shortcomings of his 2014 campaign, which devoted significant resources to courting moderate Republican voters in Johnson County but failed to drive strong turnout in Democratic-leaning areas like Wyandotte County.

“I think that you have to energize voters…But the challenge is: how can you get the Republican votes you need while still turning out Democratic votes?” he said.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3