Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932. It last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964.
But Democrats now believe the 2018 midterm elections are their best chance in years to flip half the state’s four congressional seats from red to blue.
If that happens, it’s a strong signal Republicans really are in trouble nationwide.
“The road to flipping the House runs right through Kansas,” said Andrea Ramsey, one of six Democrats vying to unseat Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder in Kansas City’s suburban 3rd district.
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The 3rd is one of 23 Republican-held districts across the country where Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016. A year before Election Day, it’s already drawing money, personnel and attention from the national Democratic Party.
So is Kansas’ 2nd district in Kansas’ eastern quarter, a seat left open by the retirement of Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins. President Donald Trump won the 2nd with 56 percent of the vote in 2016.
Democrats are underdogs in both races. The Cook Political Report, a publication that analyzes congressional and gubernatorial races across the country, rates the districts as competitive but leaning Republican.
“I’d say if Democrats are picking up one of the two they’re having a very good night. If they pick up both they’re having an extraordinary night,” said David Wasserman, Cook’s U.S. House editor.
Kansas got a lesson out of the Brownback experiment and it was not good.
Chris Reeves, Democratic National Committeeman from Kansas
Kansas Democrats even harbor hopes of winning back the governorship after two-term Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s supply-side tax experiment plunged the state into economic and political turmoil. They’re heartened by gains the party made in the state legislature in 2016, when they picked up 14 seats.
“That was the real sign that Kansas got a lesson out of the Brownback experiment and it was not good,” said Chris Reeves, a Democratic National Committeeman from Scott City, Kansas.
“Now we’re seeing the Brownback experiment played out in the Trump administration,” Reeves said. “And we’ve seen that movie before. There’s a lot of people in Kansas who are like, ‘Nope we’ve seen that, we don’t want that.’”
Combined with Trump’s sagging approval ratings — Reeves says Democrats have him polling under 50 percent in ruby-red Kansas — “it’s a double whammy for Republicans in Kansas,” Wasserman said.
Republicans aren’t sweating any of this — at least not yet. Republican voters far outnumber Democrats in Kansas and the Kansas GOP is undefeated with a 32-0 record in federal and statewide races since 2010.
“Democrats are going to need a little bit of a reality check in Kansas in 2018,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for National Republican Congressional Committee.
He compared the situation in Kansas to Democrats’ big boast that Jon Ossoff had a chance to win the Georgia special election earlier this year, Pandol said.
“They thought it was their year to make it competitive and they blew $30 million and have little to show for it,” he said.
It doesn’t help that the Kansas Democratic Party has been overwhelmed with infighting between factions in recent months. The state party’s secretary, Casey Yingling, was recalled from her position in in September amid allegations of conflicts of interest. Yingling and her allies have threatened to take legal action against Reeves and others. Those internal battles could become a drag on the party if they continue into the election year.
At a national level, the Democratic Party’s leadership has moved left in recent years, making it harder even for moderate Democratic candidates in states such as Kansas to win, said Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas GOP.
Still, Arnold acknowledged that if congressional Republicans don’t get some big victories before the 2018 election, Democrats could find an opening to exploit at the polls.
“The voters could reject that because they elected President Trump, they elected our federal Republicans to go to Washington D.C. and make some real changes,” Arnold said. “And if we are unable to deliver on that, then I could see that as being a problem.”
Paul Davis, a Democrat ran for Kansas governor in 2014 and lost to Brownback by less than 4 percentage points, is seeking Jenkins’ 2nd district seat.
Davis carried the 2nd district by almost 7 points when he ran for governor. So far he’s outraised all five of his Republican competitors combined, hauling in an incumbent-like sum of more than $400,000 in just 45 days. Now he’s busy opening field offices across the district.
If Democrats are going to have any chance of wresting back control of the U.S. House, they’re going to have to perform well in that district, where Trump won, said Rachel Irwin, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman.
“It’s an open seat, it’s a place where we have a very strong Democratic candidate who we know has been successful in that district and has the right profile and is the right fit,” Irwin said.
In the Kansas City metro area, the 3rd district encompasses Wyandotte and Johnson counties. Voters there favored Hillary Clinton by 1 percentage point over Donald Trump in 2016.
“It’s a suburban, well-educated district. This is the kind of district we think we can flip,” Irwin said.
In the 3rd district, now held by Yoder, DCCC organizers already are on the ground and the committee is spending ad dollars.
As part of its first TV and radio national ad buy of the 2018 cycle, the DCCC aired three weeks of radio ads warning voters that Yoder and 9 other vulnerable Republicans across the country put their “healthcare is at risk.”
Yoder’s campaign spokesman CJ Grover said the congressman stands by his record.
“Kevin takes every campaign seriously but he remains focused each day on being a voice for Kansans by cutting taxes for working families, investing in education and research, and strengthening our military and national security,” Grover said.
Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Wichita, Kansas, said Republicans such as Yoder underestimate the willingness of voters in Kansas and elsewhere to move back toward the political center after the Brownback era and Trump’s polarizing election.
“I have this feeling that people are going to want to go back to the center again.,” Glickman said.
He’s more hopeful than he has been in a long time.
“All things being equal, this is a very good year to run as a Democrat,” Glickman said, “even in Kansas.”
Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star contributed from Kansas City, Mo.