One day in July demonstrated the identity crisis facing Kansas Democrats as they seek to capture a congressional seat for the first time in a decade.
Roughly 2,000 people packed into a swampy-hot hall at the Reardon Convention Center in Kansas City, Kan., Friday night to hear U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, as he led a rally for Brent Welder, a Bonner Springs attorney mounting a campaign for Kansas’ 3rd District on an unabashedly progressive platform.
In recent elections, Welder said, the party failed to beat Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder because it picked moderate candidates with unspecific policy platforms.
Welder will face off against five other candidates, including 2016 nominee Jay Sidie, in the Aug. 7 primary.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Welder said he was running “on a bold, progressive message that has never been tried before in this district.” His campaign has centered on support for Sanders’ “Medicare for All” proposal and a refusal of corporate PAC money.
In addition to Welder, progressives in the district have also been drawn to Sharice Davids, who would make history as the first Native American woman to serve in the U.S. House and the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas.
Tom Niermann, Sylvia Williams and Mike McCamon, on the other hand, have sought to present themselves as centrists capable of attracting moderate Republican voters in the general election against Yoder.
Taylor Holmes, a 19-year-old student from Kansas City, Kan., said at the Sanders event that she was weighing whether to vote for Welder or Davids.
“I will be looking for a person who is going to think about Wyandotte County and not just represent Johnson County, so I’m happy this event is happening in the inner city off of Fifth Street in KCK,” she said.
Holmes said her vote would come down to which candidate stands for economic justice and which candidate she sees knocking on doors in her neighborhood.
Big names wade in
Sanders was joined in Kansas by New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who captured national attention last month when she bested long-time U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in the Bronx.
Ocasio-Cortez told a story about how she was assigned to do a report on Kansas by her fifth-grade teacher, a native of the state, and learned about Kansas’ role in the abolition of slavery and the desegregation of schools.
She said Kansas has always been a crucible for the progressive conscience.
“The people of Kansas decided that this nation will not be a slave nation,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Sanders joked about skeptics’ reaction to his and Ocasico-Cortez’s decision to campaign in Kansas.
“People say, ‘Bernie, Alexandria, why are you coming to Kansas? Don’t you know that Kansas is a Republican state?’ ” he said. “Well, actually we do know that.”
But he contended that any state where working people are struggling is “a state prepared to fight for justice,” and he noted his landslide victory in the Kansas Democratic caucus two years earlier by more than 30 percentage points over Hillary Clinton.
He told the crowd they had helped make ideas once considered radical, such as Medicare for All, mainstream policy positions and predicted that Welder would prevail in the congressional race.
Despite Sanders’ victory in the 2016 Democratic caucus, prominent Kansas Democrats have questioned whether a candidate as left-leaning as Welder will resonate with moderate Republican voters a Democrat will likely need to beat Yoder.
“That Welder guy, it seems like he’s running to be Bernie Sanders, and I don’t think that plays that well in Johnson County,” said former Kansas Democratic Party chair Joan Wagnon several days before Sanders’ rally for Welder was announced.
Yoder campaign spokesman C.J. Grover said in a statement that Welder’s “rise to the front of the Democratic primary is fueled by the failed progressive ideas of Bernie Sanders that don’t sell in Kansas. Although he had a huge rally, I question how many of these voters will actually come out on August 7th to vote.”
In addition to Sanders, the race has attracted attention from the White House in recent weeks, with Vice President Mike Pence headlining a fundraiser for Yoder in Kansas City last week and President Donald Trump tweeting his endorsement on Thursday.
On Friday, Grammy-nominated singer and Kansas City, Kan., native Janelle Monáe also waded into the race with a message of support for Sharice Davids.
Monáe thanked Davids on Twitter “for being a voice for other human beings whose voices are pushed to the margins of society.”
Around the time of the Sanders event, the five other Democratic candidates were attending a forum at the Islamic Center of Kansas in Olathe.
Mingling at an ice cream social outside the center, Davids was enthusiastic about Monáe’s support.
“This is an example of how excited so many people are about, not just the Democratic primary, but getting engaged in the political sphere in general,” Davids said. “It’s a lucky coincidence that a whole bunch of different things are happening today.”
Earlier in the day, Niermann, a teacher from Prairie Village who is the top fundraiser in the race alongside Welder, made an effort to show his local bona fides with a series of media-friendly canvassing trips in Johnson County alongside area lawmakers supporting his candidacy.
That included knocking doors in Merriam, where one man excitedly started talking about Sanders and Medicare for All.
“He doesn’t have too many ties to Kansas, if any,” Niermann said about Sanders. “For us, we are doing what we have done from the very beginning: Making sure that we’re knocking on doors every day, making sure we’re making phone calls every day and talking about the issues that are important to people, and health care is one of them.”
Less than an hour later, Niermann visited Fairway with state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who was stripped of a committee vice chairmanship in the Legislature after she endorsed Niermann earlier this week.
“I hope that people can see that the only way to win is to have everybody,” Bollier said. “There aren’t enough Democrats in the 3rd District to elect him. It’s going to take people from the moderate side shifting in their voting.”
‘Gutsy or stupid’
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed the race as one of its primary targets since last year, but the primary race has lacked a clear frontrunner since Leawood attorney Andrea Ramsey dropped out in late 2017.
“Anyone who makes a prediction here is gutsy or stupid, and more likely the latter,” said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who previously worked in former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration.
Loomis said Niermann appears to have the best ground organization, but Welder and Davids both have pathways to victory on the strength of their national profiles.
“I’ve been here for 40 years and this is without precedent,” Loomis said, explaining that usually Democrats in Kansas coalesce around one candidate long before the primary.
“None of them are going to have any money on August 8, but they’ll have the opportunity to get money,” he said.
Not a single Democratic candidate in the race raised more than $180,000 between April and June, according to FEC records.
Welder and Niermann had the most cash on hand, with roughly $399,000 and $385,000 respectively, putting both of them more than $1.4 million behind Yoder as of the end of June.
Welder has also repaid himself for a nearly $55,000 personal loan he made to the campaign earlier in the cycle.
Davids, who entered the race in February, had nearly $146,000 in her campaign coffers.
McCamon and Williams both made six-figure personal loans, but neither managed to raise more than five figures in contributions since joining the race this year.
And the party’s 2016 nominee, Sidie, had less than $7,000 cash on hand at the end of June. Still, Loomis said that Sidie could still pull off a primary win in August based on name recognition alone.
Wagnon said the party is “suffering from too many choices and not enough money” in the race.
“I would guess 85 percent of the people in those two counties (Wyandotte and Johnson) don’t have a clue who’s running,” said Wagnon, who is advising Williams’ campaign.
Niermann hit the TV airwaves with his first television ad last week.
The ad features the Pembroke teacher recounting the experience of performing active shooter drills with students. It comes on the heels of weeks of student-led activism on the issue of gun control in the district.
Welder also has launched a TV ad, which highlights his work as member of President Barack Obama’s campaign field staff in 2008. “Yes, we Kansas,” Welder and his family shout in the ad.
Davids has benefited from a $400,000 ad buy from Emily’s List’s Women Vote! PAC. The ad features footage of Davids, an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, hitting a punching bag and touts her journey from Johnson County Community College to fellow in the Obama White House.
“She’s fierce. She’s progressive. She’s a fighter,” the ad states.
The Women Vote! PAC paid nearly $50,000 for the ad to air 80 times on KMBC in mid-July during prime-time TV shows and the evening news.
Niermann has spent roughly half that for his ad to air on the same channel 52 times, while Welder has paid nearly $13,000 for 46 airings.
Kelly Kultala, a former state senator who is running Williams’ campaign, said the involvement of national groups, such as Emily’s List, is a marked contrast from 2014 when she made her own unsuccessful bid for the seat.
“It would have been nice to have all these resources behind me in 2014. They just weren’t,” said Kultala, who recalled that her campaign begged the DCCC to send surrogates.
Loomis said Democrats can feel confident that whoever prevails in the six-way primary will be competitive against Yoder in the fall, but he also cautioned that Yoder’s vulnerability has been overstated in the national media.
“From D.C., he looks vulnerable. I think he looks a little less vulnerable on the ground in Kansas,” Loomis said.