Sharice Davids made history Wednesday when Kansas Democrats selected the Johnson County attorney as the red state’s first openly gay, Native American nominee for Congress.
Davids, the winner of a six-way primary race, will face Rep. Kevin Yoder, a vulnerable incumbent Republican from Overland Park, in the general election. No Native American woman has ever been elected to Congress.
She also would be the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas at either the federal or state level.
Davids found out she had won while she was in the car on the way to the hospital to visit a campaign staffer, who had just had a baby. Her mother told her the news.
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Davids thanked her rival Democrats in the race in a statement on Wednesday “for their passion and for engaging in a spirited and important debate about the future of this district and this country.” All five of her former competitors joined her at a Democratic unity rally at noon Wednesday.
“Now, we turn to the general election and set our sights on defeating Kevin Yoder, an extremist who has tried time and time again to undermine health care access and give tax breaks for the largest corporations,” Davids said. “He is a pawn for Donald Trump and I will not allow him to continue to take us in the wrong direction while working families in our communities suffer.”
Kansas has been at the center of debates over LGBT rights in recent years, which gives Davids’ selection as her party’s nominee extra significance for the state’s LGBT community.
Her nomination comes only three months after Gov. Jeff Colyer signed a law that explicitly establishes the right of faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples.
In 2014, the Kansas House overwhelmingly passed a bill that enabled private and public employees to refuse same-sex couples based on religious views of marriage. The bill was abandoned after it sparked international outcry.
The following year, then-Gov. Sam Brownback stripped LGBT state workers of anti-discrimination protections that had been enacted under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“Since 2011, our state has been ‘ground-zero’ in the fight against discriminatory ‘religious freedom’ laws,” Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said in a statement. “Tonight, however, voters in the third congressional district have sent a clear message to the nation: Fairness and tolerance are Kansas values.”
EMILY’s List, the Democratic women’s group that endorsed Davids, said in a statement Wednesday that Davids, an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, is ready to take on Yoder in November and show 3rd District voters that she’s the best choice to represent them in Congress.
“Unlike Yoder, Sharice will work to protect access to affordable health care and make decisions based on what’s best for people in the district — not as a pawn of Donald Trump,” EMILY’s List said in a statement.
Davids won Tuesday’s hotly contested and crowded Democratic primary by capturing 37 percent of the vote, edging out her closest competitor in Brent Welder, who received 34 percent, by 2,088 votes.
The outcome of the race was not known until almost 8 a.m. Wednesday because the Johnson County Election Office experienced an all-night delay in reporting its results.
Welder called Davids at about 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday to congratulate her and say he looks forward to supporting her.
Earlier, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threw it’s weight fully behind Davids.
“As the daughter of a single mother and Army veteran, Sharice is running to expand opportunities for all Kansans, which falls in sharp contrast with her opponent who has consistently voted to make it harder for Kansans to get ahead,” said DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján. “After this hard-fought primary win, Sharice emerges even stronger in her historic bid to flip this competitive seat.”
Yoder, who coasted through his primary contest on Tuesday, has won Kansas’ 3rd congressional district by double digits in every election going back to 2010.
Yoder’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on Davids’ victory. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s spokeswoman Kerry Rom issued a statement calling Davids “the farthest left candidate by emerging from the most liberal field Kansas City has ever seen” and dismissed her policy positions as “far out of step with this district”
Democrats are optimistic about their chances in Yoder’s suburban Kansas City district, which Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race.
Emily Magness, a 19-year-old intern on Davids’ campaign, pointed to her status as a barrier-breaking candidate when serving as emcee at the candidate’s watch party at Breit’s Stein and Deli in Kansas City, Kan.
“I thought it was really cool that Sharice is a gay Native woman running, because I’m also a gay Native woman. It’s not a community you see represented a lot, especially in this district,” she said. “It’ll mean that someone like me can absolutely have a chance of representing the people in this district.”
The six Democratic candidates in the race demonstrated the range of ideologies and identities struggling for dominance in the party.
Welder, an attorney who moved to Bonner Springs from Missouri last year, has given full-throated support to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” proposal and shared the stage last month with the Vermont independent before a crowd of 2,000 in Kansas City, Kan.
Tom Niermann, a teacher from Prairie Village, presented himself as a moderate capable of winning Republican votes in the general election, an idea highlighted by his decision to campaign with state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican.
The rest of the Democratic field — Mike McCamon, Sylvia Williams and Jay Sidie — finished far behind Davids.
The Davids campaign drew an enthusiastic crowd at Breit’s, a mainstay in downtown Kansas City, Kan., for her campaign watch party.
Elsewhere in Kansas, political newcomer Steve Watkins defeated six experienced Republican candidates, including four current lawmakers and a former Kansas House speaker, for the party’s nomination in Kansas’ 2nd congressional district.
Watkins will take on Democrat Paul Davis in the general election for the open seat. Davis, who leads all candidates in fundraising, won the district as a candidate for governor four years ago.
Both districts are rated as toss-up races between Democrats and Republicans by RealClearPolitics, a national site that tracks polling data.
Davids’ campaign party drew a diverse and enthusiastic crowd of men, women, Native Americans and members of the LGBT community.
Cold beer flowed from the taps, and the band The Typing Pool covered Bob Dylan’s 1964 hit “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Among those in the crowd was Jeff Harris, a member of the Westwood City Council, who first met Davids two months ago.
“When I think about who I want representing me, I’m interested in someone who can set a goal and motivate themselves to achieve it,” Harris said. “The other reason I’m supporting her: You know, never say vote for someone just based on their characteristics or their identity, but that experience of being a woman dominated in a world by men, of being a lesbian, of being Native American, she has had to learn about how to navigate spaces where she didn’t have power, where she didn’t have control.”
He continued: “That takes a lot of motivation and fortitude. When I think about who I want representing me, it’s a person with that type of experience and that type of strength.”
Paula Cutter-Mark, 55, of Olathe was working as site director for The Learning Club until May, when she quit her job to join Davids’ campaign.
The kids she worked with at The Learning Club are part of marginalized communities: refugees, migrants. Davids cares about these marginalized communities and will help represent them, Cutter-Mark said.
”I felt like I would be able to make a difference on a bigger scale to help those kids because Sharice is the kind of person who’s going to make a difference for them,” she said.
Davids posted strong numbers in Johnson County to make up for an early deficit from Wyandotte County, where Welder performed well. She outpolled Welder in Johnson County by 5,332 votes.
Davids, 38, was raised by a single mother and went to Johnson County Community College before earning a law degree from Cornell University. She worked for a time as a private attorney before taking a job at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Davids was a White House fellow in 2016 and then returned to Kansas.
“She’s kind of a self-made person. That appealed to me,” said Billie Espino, a retiree who has lived in Kansas City, Kan., for six decades and turned out to vote for Davids early Tuesday.
Davids supports Medicaid expansion; tax cuts for the middle class, as opposed to the Trump tax cuts that she sees as a giveaway to the wealthy; and reforming immigration while protecting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.
Her contest against Yoder in November’s general election sets up what will likely be one of the most closely watched elections for the U.S. House.
Yoder, who has generally enjoyed support in his district since first reaching Congress in 2011, is seen by national Democrats as a vulnerable incumbent in a district that includes Democratic-leaning Wyandotte County and generally moderate Republican-leaning Johnson County.
Yoder in recent weeks has had to navigate the fine line of appealing to his mostly moderate district while also supporting President Donald Trump, whose approval ratings are in the low 40s but who remains highly popular among Republicans.
Yoder earned the wrath of conservatives in July for his support of a Democratic plan that would make asylum easier to obtain for migrants fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence.
After bearing the brunt of criticism from conservative commentators, Yoder stepped back his support for the Democratic plan and pledged to work with Trump to fix immigration. Trump had earlier praised Yoder for his work in securing $5 billion for Trump’s proposed southern border wall as part of the House Homeland Security spending bill.
Yoder rejected the notion that he’s vulnerable during a speech at the Johnson County Republican Party’s election night party in Overland Park.
“We’ve heard a lot about a blue wave coming to Kansas this year. … There’s a red wave coming,” Yoder said.
“Let me be clear. We are ready for this fight, and we are going to win in November.”
The Republican race in the 2nd District saw Watkins, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, triumph over four current members of the Legislature and two other experienced politicians.
Watkins won the race with a plurality of 26 percent of the vote in the district, which includes Lawrence and Topeka.
Watkins, who has borrowed heavily from Trump’s rhetoric, has faced scrutiny in recent weeks after The Star revealed he had a meeting with Democratic Party officials in Topeka ahead of launching his candidacy and that he did not vote in the 2016 election or any other presidential election before that.
The candidate’s father, a Topeka physician with the same first name, is the founder and sole funder of the Kansans Can Do Anything PAC, a super PAC that has been airing commercials promoting his candidacy and attacking his opponents. The elder Watkins has put nearly $590,000 into the PAC.
State Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, has criticized the PAC for TV ads that incorrectly state that she voted for a 2015 tax hike that Tyson actually voted against.
Tyson was one of three candidates who received an endorsement from the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. The other candidates to receive the endorsement were state Sens. Steve Fitzgerald of Leavenworth and Dennis Pyle of Hiawatha.
In addition to three senators, the race also included state Rep. Kevin Jones of Wellsville, former Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays and Basehor City Council member Vernon Fields.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said that none of the established candidates “really caught fire” in the race, which shifted the focus to Watkins, who was running on a promise to drain the swamp in Washington.
“I think we’ve seen a number of races, including in 2016, where you’ve had those kind of candidates paired with the financial support to help them really dominate the messaging in that campaign,” Miller said.