It has been a seminal year for the Kansas Democrats.
Not only did the party beat out a hard-line conservative for the governor’s office, it also made history by electing Sharice Davids, an openly gay Native American woman, to the House of Representatives, adding to the highest-ever number of women in Congress.
But party leaders say they’re not finished yet. With a long-held Republican Senate seat up for grabs, Kansas Democrats are hoping to capitalize on shifting attitudes and an emboldened voter base in the 2020 election.
The Democrats elected new leadership and discussed plans for the future at their annual convention in Topeka on Saturday.
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“When I’m out in D.C. and I’m talking to people about Kansas, they’re not looking at me funny anymore,” said Davids speaking to a crowd at a Ramada Inn ballroom.
Davids, who beat out Republican Kevin Yoder for control of Kansas’ third district, touted her work pushing gun control and voting rights legislation and called for more Democrats in 2020.
“We have the chance in Kansas to start to shift a national narrative,” Davids said.
But just who will lead that shift remains to be seen.
After Republican Sen. Pat Roberts announced in January that he would not be running for a fifth term, politicians in both parties have been weighing congressional runs, but few have committed.
Speculation has risen around former Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, among others, but Republican State Treasurer Jake LaTurner is the only formal candidate.
Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom has expressed interest in running on the Democratic ticket, but has yet to announce a campaign. Former Kansas Democrat Chairman John Gibson said he knows a number of Democrats who are also considering a run, but declined to identify them.
If a Democrat were to win, they’d be breaking nearly a century of Republican hold on the Senate. A Kansas Democrat hasn’t been elected to the office since 1930.
“I think we have a real chance in 2020 to pick up a Senate seat here,” Gibson said. “I think Democrats are certainly going to be the underdog but I think we’ll have a punching chance in that contest.”
And the midterms show Gibson could be right. In 2016, Republicans in Kansas won all four Congressional districts by double-digit margins. But that stronghold fell in 2018 when only two districts won by double-digits. In District 3, Davids beat Yoder by a margin of 10 points. In District 2, Democratic Paul Davis barely lost to Republican Rep. Steve Watkins.
In addition to a strong showing in the midterms, Democrats gained ground in the state legislature this session when three Republican lawmakers switched party affiliations, including Sen. Barbara Bollier, Sen. Dinah Sykes and Rep. Stephanie Clayton.
Gibson said it’s a sign that Kansans’ long-held affection for the Republican party is waning.
“There’s a lot of people who I’ve met going around the state who are still registered with the other side, and have a deep cultural affinity for Republicans, but they feel that Democrats are more aligned with their interests and their values,” Gibson said.
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the outcome of the Senate seat could hinge on the person the Republicans nominate.
“If they decide to elect somebody that’s as conservative as Kris Kobach, it could be very difficult for that nominee to win and it would be better for us,” Hensley said. “When the Republican party is divided within their own primary, Democrats stand a better chance of winning the general election.”
Another factor is President Donald Trump. Much of the focus of the Democratic party is on getting the president and his supporters out of office. But in Kansas, where Trump’s approval rating is still hovering at 50 percent, that kind of message could prove tricky.
When asked if she thinks Kansans are ready to elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, Davids told The Star, “I don’t know why not.
“We just won a governor’s race and I think there’s just so much enthusiasm for good ideas and people who are pragmatic,” she said. “I also think people are just as interested in making sure that we’re electing people who want to get stuff done.”