The KFC bucket came with a side of Republican panic.
Anxiety over the GOP's weakened grasp on Kansas’ 2nd congressional district, which includes Topeka and Lawrence, was on full display during last month’s state party convention.
GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins is retiring. Republicans lack a clear front runner in the race to replace her, while Democrats have coalesced around Paul Davis, a former state lawmaker who won the district during his unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2014.
"If the election were held today, (there's) a 70 percent chance Davis gets elected,” Mike Stieben, co-chair of Kansans For Life’s political action committee, told the crowd at a convention prayer breakfast.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
He passed an empty KFC bucket around the room, urging people to drop in donations so his anti-abortion group could start campaigning in the district.
"We cannot elect Paul Davis," Stieben said. "And he's ahead. Wake up. We need your help."
And this was before Conor Lamb, a Pennsylvania Democrat, eked out a victory in a conservative district that in 2016 went strongly for Donald Trump, bolstering Democrats' hopes of a blue wave and spiking conservative concerns about what this could all mean for the Republican majority in Congress.
The results in Pennsylvania are "definitely encouraging," said Davis, a Lawrence attorney and former Kansas House minority leader.
"It shows that Democrats can win in red districts in this environment," he said.
Davis has campaigned as a centrist and, similar to Lamb, has said he will not vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, for House speaker.
"I'm doing a lot of the same things that Conor Lamb did in his campaign," Davis said this week. "Just making it very clear to voters that I am an American long before I am a Democrat."
In campaign contributions, Davis has outraised all the Republicans in the race combined, taking in roughly $740,000 as of January. And a poll released last month by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, showed him with a lead within the margin of error over a generic Republican.
The seven-person Republican field included a mix of state lawmakers and political newcomers, none of whom has kept pace with Davis in fundraising.
"They are clearly struggling to raise money," Davis said about the Republican field. “Raising money oftentimes (is) indicative of the amount of interest people have in your campaign and also indicative of what kinds of relationships you have with donors that are in the district. It appears that they're really struggling in that department."
Among the Republicans, state Sen. Caryn Tyson of Parker has raised more than $150,000 and also loaned her campaign $65,000.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, has raised less than $90,000 but has the most cash on hand on the strength of $150,000 in personal loans.
Steve Watkins, an Army veteran who has competed in the Iditarod, has more than $200,000 in the bank, but nearly all of that is from $175,100 in loans.
During the state GOP convention, Fitzgerald held a news conference and called for other Republicans to drop out of the race.
"I'm calling on the party to unite and I'm offering myself as being the candidate that can win this seat and help us to maintain control of the United States House of Representatives and help make it more conservative,” he said. “We need a Congress that's going to be a good partner with the president as he tries to implement the agenda that we approved."
Democrats are desperate to win back Congress, Fitzgerald said, and he invoked the specter of Pelosi once again becoming speaker of the House.
He described Davis as “a real threat to our campaign.”
"We do not need to give them any help,” he said. “Instead of continuing to be at odds with each other and ourselves within the party, we need to come together as we begin this fight.”
No candidates have followed Fitzgerald’s advice to drop out.
A Republican consultant, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, called the candidates running in the 2nd District “maybe the weakest field in a Republican seat that you will ever find.”
Former Kansas Commerce Secretary Antonio Soave dropped out of the race in November after a Kansas City Star investigation into contracts that went to his personal friends during his tenure at the agency.
Tyler Tannahill, a Marine veteran in the race, faced a wave of criticism last month for continuing with an AR-15 giveaway in the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The consultant, who works on races in Kansas, pointed to Davis’ strong fundraising, the weak GOP field and the difficult election environment for Republicans nationally as reasons the seat could be flipped unless the national party gets heavily involved in the race.
“And it just so happens the day the primary’s over we’re going to have the best of a field of bad candidates facing a guy with seven figures in the bank,” the consultant said.
“I think we’ve got a terrible field of candidates and if the environment remains the way it is, as crazy as it sounds I think the Republican’s the underdog the day the primary’s over.”
Many prominent Republicans, including Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and state Treasurer Jake LaTurner, live in the district but opted not to enter the race, a fact noted by Davis’ political mentor, Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley.
“One of the reasons they can’t find a serious contender is because that serious contender is looking at who they’d have to face in the general. And that’s Paul Davis. I would think a lot of people who are current elected officials would not take the risk of losing their seat,” said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
Republicans in Washington are already taking notice of the race.
“Kansas’ 2nd congressional district needs to be taken seriously by Republicans or they will end up with a supporter of Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda representing Kansas in Congress," said Corry Bliss, the executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan that works to elect Republicans.
Bliss made these comments in February — several weeks before Lamb's victory in Pennsylvania.
Bliss has experience with close races in Kansas.
He was brought in by national Republicans to manage U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts' 2014 campaign when the Kansas Republican found himself locked in a surprisingly competitive race against independent Greg Orman. In the end, Roberts prevailed by a nearly 11-point margin.
Courtney Alexander, the Leadership Fund’s communications director, expanded on Bliss’ comments Thursday in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania election.
“No matter where you are in the country, it’s a tough year,” she said.
Alexander repeatedly hammered on the importance of fundraising. “You’re not going to be able to get your message out if you don’t have the money to do it,” Alexander said.
Asked if alarm bells should be going off in Kansas because the Democrat has outraised every Republican in a GOP district, she replied, “Yes.”
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Republicans should be worried, but it’s not a lost cause.
He pointed out that both the 2nd and 3rd congressional districts, currently held by Republicans, are being targeted by Democrats and could bring resources and attention to GOP candidates that they might not receive otherwise.
"You would expect (U.S. Rep.) Kevin Yoder to lose before Paul Davis wins," Miller said, referencing the demographics of Yoder’s 3rd District, which covers Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
"Just based on the partisan performance of the districts," Miller said. "But in the kind of environment we're in, where we're seeing districts like Pennsylvania's 18th flip where it shouldn't, a district like the Second could be in play especially with a candidate like Paul Davis.”
Jenkins said she’s not planning to endorse a candidate ahead of the August primary.
"I'm retiring at the end of this Congress, and while I'm not sure what I'll be doing next, I don't think I'll be looking for a job in political punditry," Jenkins said.
Tyson acknowledged that the 2nd District is vulnerable. But when asked about the race this week, she repeatedly referred to Trump, who won the district by double digits in 2016.
"I think Kansans are still supportive of the president," Tyson said. "The people that we're talking to, they like his agenda, what he ran on, campaigned on, you know, watching cautiously some of his actions on NAFTA ... but for the most part they like what he's doing."
Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, a Kansas native, tweeted enthusiastically about Tyson earlier this month, saying she “would be a tremendous Member of Congress!”
Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chair, said the Pennsylvania special election should be a lesson for Kansas Republicans to avoid complacency.
"I think the lesson is we can’t sit back. We have to campaign hard. Just because Donald Trump won the 2nd District by double digits doesn’t mean we have a greater advantage," Arnold said.
Arnold said there's no guarantee Republicans will win, but he also said the party knows how to beat Davis in a close election.
"Right now the Democrats have their one candidate, who happens to be their candidate who lost to Gov. Brownback in 2014. We know about him. We know what his flaws are. So we know how to attack and campaign against him as a party," he said.
The Star's Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.