Government & Politics

Iraq War veteran pursues run for Yoder’s seat, sets up likely Democratic primary fight

Iraq War vet explains decision to run for Congress

Joe McConnell, a veteran, will run as a Democrat for a seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican.
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Joe McConnell, a veteran, will run as a Democrat for a seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican.

An Army veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq will run for U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder’s seat as a Democrat.

Joe McConnell, a 35-year-old Johnson County native who works in operations strategy for the business networking site LinkedIn, moved back to his home state in April with his wife and 2-year-old daughter after spending the past eight years in California.

McConnell will officially file Tuesday to run for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, a seat that has been held by Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, since 2011.

McConnell will likely face off against Jay Sidie, the 2016 Democratic nominee, in a primary next A third candidate, Reginald Marselus, who ran unsuccessfully in 2014 and 2016, will also seek the nomination.

McConnell, who grew up in Overland Park and now lives in Leawood, was deployed in Iraq as part of the 2007 surge when the violence in the country was still at its height.

“The unit we were in was under pretty constant attack when we got over there,” said McConnell, who spent 14 months in Iraq and had obtained the rank of captain at the time he was discharged.

But as the surge gained momentum, McConnell, who earned an engineering degree at Princeton University on an ROTC scholarship, saw his mission change to rebuilding the country.

McConnell, a political newcomer, said that his concerns about President Donald Trump’s administration have helped steer him into the race.

“I swore an oath to defend this country and defend the Constitution. And I take that seriously. It’s not an oath that ever lapses. And so what’s been going on — it distresses me,” he said. “I look at the last few months of the Trump administration and quite honestly, the best word I’d use to describe it is chaos.”

The 3rd district, which covers the Kansas City suburbs, has been listed as a key target for 2018 by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after Democrat Hillary Clinton carried it in the presidential race. Yoder still won re-election by a comfortable 10-point margin.

C.J. Grover, a spokesman for Yoder, said in an email that “Yoder is focused on doing the job the voters of the Third District elected him to do — fixing our broken health care system, reforming our tax code, and passing legislation to help working families, our veterans, and our military. As always, he welcomes the opportunity to make his case to the voters, but the next election is still 18 months away.”

Rachel Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Yoder is extremely vulnerable because of his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The DCCC won’t officially endorse a candidate for the primary, but Irwin touted McConnell as a strong prospect.

“We’re very excited about Joe McConnell stepping up to run. He’s a veteran with business experience, and he’s born and raised in this district,” said Irwin, who is visiting the Kansas City area this week ahead of the 2018 campaign.

McConnell said that health care is a personal issue for him. His 65-year-old father, Rick, who works at an Overland Park community center, does not work enough hours to get health insurance through his employer and has suffered from kidney problems for years that made it difficult to buy insurance until the passage of the Affordable Care Act under former President Barack Obama.

“My dad gets to watch his granddaughter grow up because of a piece of legislation. That means a lot to me,” he said.

One person who is not happy to see McConnell pursue a run is Sidie, the Mission Woods businessman who won the party’s nomination in 2016 and lost to Yoder by double digits in November.

Sidie said he is in the process of getting his team together for a second run and that he had told McConnell that on the phone. He questioned McConnell’s motivation for moving back to Kansas.

“I mean, he moved all the way from California just to run here, which is kind of odd. Kind of a carpetbagger move,” Sidie said. “…I’m not saying he should stay out. I’m just saying, what was his motive for coming here? Did he come here because he didn’t think there was anyone willing to step up to run?”

McConnell moved to California after leaving active duty in 2009 to join his wife, Valerie, who was a law student at Stanford University. He earned his MBA from the same university.

McConnell said they’ve been discussing moving to Johnson County, where he grew up, since the birth of their daughter two years ago.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3