Government & Politics

Ex-Brownback, Sebelius aides among women weighing 2020 congressional runs in Kansas

Kathleen Sebelius’ former speechwriter, Sam Brownback’s ex-campaign manager and a disability rights advocate are among the Kansas women contemplating campaigns for Congress.

The emerging field of female candidates reflects aggressive recruiting efforts by both parties as 2020 approaches.

Democrats want to replicate in other parts of the state the formula that enabled Rep. Sharice Davids to win the party its first U.S. House seat in a decade. Republicans are looking to win back suburban women in Davids’ 3rd Congressional District following incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder’s double-digit defeat in 2018.

The seat is a top target for the National Republican Congressional Committee and could be crucial for the party’s chances of winning back a House majority in 2020.

The NRCC met with two potential challengers for Davids this week: former Kansas Republican chairwoman Amanda Adkins and Sara Hart Weir, a Johnson County resident who recently stepped down as the president and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS).

While Weir is a potential Republican candidate, she worked on behalf of Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore’s 2004 re-election campaign shortly after her graduation from Westminster College.

Moore, a moderate Democrat, held the seat from 1999 to 2011. He was succeeded by Yoder, a Republican who served eight years before Davids returned the suburban Kansas City seat to Democratic hands.

“In the summer of 2004, right after graduating from college, I helped out on Dennis Moore’s reelection campaign for a very brief period of time. I had never worked on a campaign and thought working on one would be a good experience and a family friend put me in touch with the Moore campaign,” Weir said in a statement when asked about an online bio touting her work for Moore.

“Needless to say, through my work as CEO of NDSS and other life experiences, my conservative political ideology is not in line with the modern Democrat party.”

Weir, 37, worked closely with Yoder on the passage of the ABLE Act in 2014, legislation that enabled families to set up tax-exempt savings accounts for children with Down syndrome that wouldn’t affect their eligibility for Medicaid benefits.

“True advocacy comes from telling personal stories,” said Weir, who serves a co-guardian for a woman with Down syndrome who she began working with as a peer-mentor two decades ago.

Weir noted that the legislation was co-sponsored by 381 House members and 78 senators before its final passage by a wide bipartisan majority in 2014, an example of how she can build consensus.

It has been adopted by 49 states, including Kansas, which Weir pointed to as her proudest accomplishment. She called it a private sector solution and said after years of working with the disability community she is “just tired of government making all of their decisions.”

Prior to her work on Down syndrome, Weir worked as a lobbyist for GlaxoSmithKline, a British pharmaceutical company. She said her work focused on a vaccines targeted for the Veterans Administration.

Weir, who grew up in Olathe and now lives in Mission, declined to discuss how she’d match up against Davids, saying she is focused on finding out whether she is the right candidate through conversations with grassroots leaders.

This week, both Weir and Adkins are in Washington, D.C., for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Excellence in Public Service Series, which provides leadership training to Republican women and arranges meetings with lawmakers. Adkins is the co-founder of the group and Weir is part of this year’s class.

Of the 102 women in the U.S. House, only 13 are Republicans.

“I think we should look for women in leadership in all areas,” said Weir, whose potential rival for the GOP nomination was at the same conference.

Adkins, 44, chaired the state party from 2009 to 2013, overseeing the 2010 election when Republicans, with Brownback at the top of the ticket in the race for governor, won every federal and statewide race.

Adkins managed Brownback’s 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate and as governor he appointed her to chair the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, which oversees a variety of childhood programs.

“What I can confirm is I’m definitely in the testing the waters phase right now. I am meeting with business and community leaders,” said Adkins, who has spent more than a decade on the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

“Women in leadership is very important to me,” she said.

Adkins declined to comment on what’s driving her to run, but laid out her background: executive at Kansas City-based Cerner, one of the top health information technology firms in the country; mother of middle-school-age kids, Catholic.

She also describes herself as a social entrepreneur. Adkins recently created the System of Care Initiative, a charity that will fund an early childhood initiative in Wyandotte County to prepare kids for kindergarten.

Brooke Goren, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an email that Republicans haven’t actually learned the lesson from the 2018 race in which health care was a key issue.

“No matter which anti-health care candidate Republicans recruit, Kansans will choose Rep. Davids because they know she will always have their backs,” Goren said.

Davids’ campaign pointed to her support for bills intended to lower prescription drug costs and protect coverage with pre-existing conditions as reasons she’ll be able to fend off GOP challengers.

“Her entire focus is on serving the Third District, and that’s what will get her re-elected,” the campaign said in a statement.

Bob Salera, spokesman for the NRCC, said Davids will be vulnerable because she hasn’t distinguished herself from Democratic House leaders.

But Adkins could also feel the drag from her connections to Brownback, who left office with a low approval rating. Asked whether her past work for Brownback could hurt her in the 3rd congressional district, Adkins said no.

“I’ve done a lot in politics,” she said. She points to her time as chair of the Kansas GOP and as a staffer for Congressman David Dreier, a California Republican.

“I’ve got a pretty extensive span of relationships over 20 years in politics.”

Brownback has largely retreated from Kansas politics since leaving office in 2017 to take a post in President Donald Trump’s administration. He did not make an endorsement in last year’s race for governor, when his former lieutenant governor lost to a Trump-backed candidate in the primary.

Sebelius, on the other hand, was a major figure in the campaigns for Davids and Gov. Laura Kelly in 2018. Her support could be a major asset in a Democratic primary.

Abbie Hodgson, 37, confirmed to The Star that she is contemplating a run for Kansas’ 2nd district, which includes Topeka and Lawrence. She began her political career as an aide to Sebelius, a two-term Democratic governor.

“I am seriously considering the race,” Hodgson said in a phone call.

“I want to ensure that Kansans in the 2nd District receive the best representation possible in Washington,” she said. “Obviously, there’s a number of ways in which the politics and politicians in D.C. have failed Kansans. And I believe I have the skills to do better. I’ll be making a decision in the coming week.”

Hodgson, who currently lives in Washington, ran unsuccessfully the Kansas House in 2014 when she lived in Lawrence. She went on to serve as chief of staff to Rep. Tom Burroughs during the Kansas City Democrat’s two-year stint as House minority leader.

In 2017, Hodgson spoke out against what she considered a failure by Burroughs and other statehouse leaders to confront a culture of sexual harassment at the Kansas Capitol.

She revealed that male Democratic lawmakers relied on underage female interns to serve as designated drivers to and from lobbyist-hosted cocktail parties and dinners. Hodgson also alleged that she faced intimidation from lawmakers after raising concerns about the behavior.

“I was told people were watching me,” Hodgson told The Star in 2017, a year after her departure from the statehouse. “I was told legislators are accountable to no one but the voters.”

Hodgson’s disclosures, which came at the height of the Me Too movement, spurred other women to speak out about inappropriate behavior in Kansas politics and prompted legislative leaders to pursue reforms to combat sexual harassment in Topeka.

Two years after her revelations, Hodgson has been weighing a return to her home state and possible run against Rep. Steve Watkins, a first-term Republican who was elected in 2018 with a narrow 2 percentage point margin of victory.

Hodgson has had conversations about a run with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s main campaign wing for U.S. House races, and with EMILY’s List, a national progressive organization dedicated to electing female candidates.

The DCCC hasn’t listed the seat as a target for 2020 despite Watkins’ close race last election, but EMILY’s List has designated the seat as one of its 43 top targets for this cycle.

EMILY’s List played a major role in boosting Davids in the 2018 six-way primary and strongly backed Kelly in her successful race for governor. The group did not immediately respond to an email about its conversations with Hodgson.

Watkins’ spokesman Jim Joice dismissed the threat posed by the progressive organization targeting the seat.

“Once again, EMILY’s list and the coastal elites are offering to cough up millions in out-of-state funds to force their pro-abortion agenda onto unwilling Kansans. The people of Kansas’ Second Congressional District have repeatedly rejected their radical agenda and will do so again in 2020,” Joice said in an email.

Ethan Corson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said the state party is actively seeking female candidates for all races this election following Kelly and Davids’ victories.

“I’m hopeful that a lot of the great women that we have in the party will step up and think about being candidates because obviously as we’ve seen with Laura and Sharice it’s a tremendous opportunity to make a difference,” Corson said.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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