Paul Davis has decided to explore a campaign for Congress, upending the 2018 race for Kansas governor, where he was seen as a likely Democratic candidate to replace Republican Sam Brownback.
Davis, an attorney and Lawrence Democrat, said Thursday that he intends to explore a run for the 2nd congressional seat held by Republican Lynn Jenkins. Jenkins announced earlier this year that she would retire from public service at the end of her term.
Davis said a formal campaign announcement could come this summer.
“I’ve been following what’s been going on at the federal level in Washington, D.C., and really have a great deal of concern for the direction that the country is going in right now,” Davis said.
Davis had been widely seen as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018. Campaigning for governor would have been a second shot at the office for Davis, who tried to oust Brownback in 2014 but fell short. Davis was the House Democratic leader before he gave up the seat to run for governor.
“I absolutely think there’s a very good opportunity for a Democrat to run for governor and win that election,” Davis said. “I’m sure that we will have maybe several very good people who are going to come forward.”
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer announced earlier this year that he was seeking the Democratic nomination, but political science professor Burdett Loomis said he doubted that Brewer would have “broad statewide appeal.”
“I can’t see an obvious candidate there,” said Loomis, who teaches at the University of Kansas. “I don’t see anyone in the Legislature right now that is an obvious candidate.”
Davis’ decision to wade into a run for Congress makes the 2018 campaign for governor a wide open race for Republicans and Democrats, Loomis said.
On the Republican side, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman has announced a bid, and entrepreneur Ed O’Malley is exploring a run. Several other Republicans also are weighing bids, including Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder.
Loomis noted that while Davis has a decent base of support in the area, the 2nd district seat is still a Republican seat.
“But, you know, Democrats have won in that seat,” Loomis said.
Davis’ announcement comes the same week that Democrat James Thompson came within striking distance of beating Republican Ron Estes in the special election for the state’s 4th Congressional District. Despite the loss, the margin was cheered by Democrats, who are now looking ahead to 2018.
“I think the Republicans at the national level have gone too extreme for most of these moderates in Kansas, and I think Paul will benefit from that,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. “I think you can see that in the race in Wichita. That should not have been close.”
Jack Pandol, a spokesman with the National Republican Congressional Committee, criticized Davis in an email, saying that “career politician Democrat Paul Davis can’t stop running.”
“Republicans will make sure Davis is held accountable for all of his past actions that are out of step with Kansas values,” Pandol said.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, confirmed to The Star earlier this month that he will run for the 2nd Congressional District. The 2nd district, which includes Topeka and Lawrence, extends from northeast Kansas to the Oklahoma border.
The 3rd Congressional District, held by Yoder, covers much of the Kansas City area, including Wyandotte and Johnson counties.
Fitzgerald said he had anticipated Davis would run for governor, not for Congress.
“I have always thought this would be an extremely hard-fought campaign,” Fitzgerald said. “The Democrats are, as we saw in Wichita, they’re out to basically I think try to save their party from obliteration.”
The 2018 election will come at the midpoint of President Donald Trump’s term. The president’s political party tends to lose seats in the midterm elections, said Patrick Miller, a KU political science professor.
Davis found past success in the 2nd district — winning it by 6 points in the 2014 gubernatorial race — though he lost statewide, Miller said.
There’s a general sense in politics that candidates are allowed to lose a race once but that losing a race twice can sour people on your political prospects, he said.
“The House seat may be a safer gamble,” Miller said.
The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.