Wichita author Sarah Smarsh named finalist for 2018 National Book Award
Sarah Smarsh, author of a bestselling memoir about growing up poor in rural Kansas, is considering a Democratic candidacy for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2020 after weeks of public and private encouragement.
But she’s in no hurry to join the race.
Smarsh, 38, a 2018 National Book Award finalist for “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” confirmed Tuesday that she met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, last month to discuss the race.
The book’s success and its focus on class has sparked speculation about a political future for the author for months.
“Conversations have made it clear that, as a proud product of rural America, a longtime chronicler of Kansas for a national audience, and a progressive woman who was raised in a moderately conservative environment, I am a cultural bridge person who would offer voters a unique option in the race,” said Smarsh, who spoke at Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s inauguration in January.
Smarsh said she has also spoken with presidential candidates and met with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the Nevada Democrat who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, will retire at the end of his current term. Kansas has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932, but the party is hoping to build on the momentum from Kelly’s 2018 win in the race for governor.
Smarsh said she’s received widespread encouragement from party leaders and that she will continue to slowly weigh how to best serve Kansas, but she also emphasized that may end up to be sticking with her current career.
“I became a writer, in part, to hold government accountable and call out cultural attitudes and policies that harm disadvantaged groups—including the working-poor Kansas farming community I grew up in,” she said in an email.
In a Nov. 10 piece for The New York Times about the election of Kelly and Rep. Sharice Davids, Smarsh argued that women are best positioned to lead Kansas back into the Democratic column.
“It seems that if Midwestern states are bound for a return to their democratic-socialist roots—prairie populism, it was once called—they will first require a return to center in female form,” Smarsh wrote.
As Smarsh considers the possibility, other prominent Democrats are taking steps to set up campaigns in a state where party leaders have often sought to prevent primary battles.
Former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom said he’s in the process of interviewing campaign staff.
Grissom, 65, accidentally floated his plans for a July launch when he tweeted last week at Ira Lechner, a San Diego attorney who founded Project High Hopes, a program which registers high school students to vote.
In the now-deleted tweet, which revealed his cell phone number in addition to the anticipated campaign launch date, Grissom told Lechner he wanted to discuss voter registration in Southwest Kansas, an area where the Democratic Party has tried to make inroads with Latino voters.
Grissom, who led the U.S. attorney’s office from 2010 to 2016, has also met with Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Former Rep. Nancy Boyda, who served one term in the U.S. House before losing to Republican Lynn Jenkins in 2008, is also looking for a campaign team.
“When I find the right people for the team that I want to build who share the same vision— it absolutely won’t be DC consultants—when I can gather that group my guess is there will be a campaign,” Boyda said.
Boyda, 63, didn’t plan to go public this early.
She agreed to go to a Labette County Democratic Party event last week and was surprised to find a reporter from the Parsons Sun in attendance.
Boyda, who operates a farm near a Baldwin City, was delivering eggs door to door when she discussed her possible return to politics.
“For the last 10 years I have had my head way down,” Boyda said. But President Donald Trump’s election has spurred her to consider another run for office.
“I just kind of went from zero to 60. You don’t get to sit out anymore,” she said.
Boyda’s rationale for wanting to serve in the Senate might surprise voters of both parties: She really wants to partner with Republican Sen. Jerry Moran.
“I believe that Jerry in his heart desires to be bipartisan, but I can’t be bipartisan by myself and he can’t be bipartisan by himself,” Boyda said.
“Dare I say I might piss off a few Democrats, but among the Republicans I would trust Jerry.”
Boyda served with Moran on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee at a time when Democrats and Republicans held an even number of seats in Kansas.
She emphasized that she has not discussed a potential campaign with Moran, who would face pressure from the Republican Party to distance himself from Boyda if she mounts a run.
“I haven’t talked to Jerry. I don’t want to make his life miserable… I don’t want to hurt him in any way by making it look like he’s supporting my campaign because that would hurt him.”
Boyda’s election to Congress in 2006 coincided with a wave of anger against then-President George W. Bush at the height of the Iraq War. It enabled Democrats to capture the U.S. House and elevate California Democrat Nancy Pelosi to House speaker for the first time.
Boyda believes voters are going into the 2020 election with a similar amount of anger, which could help Democrats to take back the U.S. Senate after six years of Republican control.
“I would suggest that 2020 is 2006 on steroids,” she said.
Boyda said that a vibrant primary would benefit the party. She and Grissom are appearing alongside each other at an event in Allen County this week, a preview of the crowded field that could be forming.
Other Democratic contenders may also emerge. Robert Tillman, a Wichita Democrat who has made multiple unsuccessful bids for Congress, told The Star he plans to run. Former congressional candidate James Thompson has also expressed interest.
Democrats captured the governor’s office and Kansas’ 3rd congressional district in 2018, but fell short in other top tier races where there was no primary, noted Kansas Democratic national committeeman Chris Reeves.
“What we learned from 2018 was that primaries can be very healthy for the party in open elections. We had a lot of candidates face primaries… and in the end I think it all made them stronger campaigns,” he said.