U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder’s general election opponent remained in doubt early Wednesday because of delays at the Johnson County Election Office.
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By 4 a.m., Sharice Davids had moved about 500 votes ahead of Brent Welder on the strength of votes still being reported in Johnson County.
Welder, an attorney who moved to Bonner Springs last year, won the majority of votes in Wyandotte County. But with 71 percent of 3rd District precincts reporting, Davids had 19,011 votes to Welder’s 18,519.
Johnson County still had not reported votes from 185 precincts. About 5:30 a.m., Johnson County election officials said on Twitter that the next results posted would be the unofficial final results. “We expect to have that update posted by 8:00 a.m.,” the tweet said.
Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, has won Kansas’ 3rd congressional district by double digits in every election going back to 2010, but Democrats are optimistic about their chances in the suburban Kansas City district, which Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race.
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.
Johnson County election officials inaugurated new machines in Tuesday’s primary, but it resulted in a huge delay in the reporting of results.
“This is quite a deal here,” Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker acknowledged about 11 p.m. after the election offices had only released very preliminary advanced voting results.
Metsker said the voting results were properly tabulated and secured, with a paper audit trail. But he also acknowledged that the new voting system had major problems with the reporting of the results.
Supporters of Welder and Davids both were waiting to see the final results late into the night.
The six Democratic candidates vying for the opportunity to face Yoder in the fall demonstrate the range of ideologies and identities struggling for dominance in the party.
Welder 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.
Davids, an attorney from Shawnee, would be the first LGBT person to represent the state of Kansas and the first Native American woman to serve in the U.S. House if she prevails.
“Representation matters. It’s time for people like me — like us — to have a seat at the table,” Davids said in an email to supporters on Election Day that emphasized her campaign’s potential to make history.
Tom Niermann, a teacher from Prairie Village, had 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.
Niermann conceded shortly after the Wyandotte County results came in.
Three other Democratic candidates are also vying for the seat: Jay Sidie, the party’s 2016 nominee, Mike McCamon, a former tech executive, and Sylvia Williams, a retired banker.
The only public poll comparing the six candidates was paid for by the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, a group that supports Welder. The Public Policy Polling survey showed Welder leading the Democratic field with 35 percent, followed by Davis with 21 percent.
Mark Semet, a former mental health counselor from Wyandotte County, pointed to Welder’s support for Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan as the reason he and his wife, a nurse, backed his candidacy.
“I don’t see it as socialism. I see it as humanism, you know? Caring for your fellow man,” Semet said as he attended Welder’s election night party at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kansas City, Kan.
His watch party was scheduled for the 44-capacity room, but it spilled out into the hotel lobby and bar area after more than 100 people showed up. They watched the election results on the bottom ticket of the screen while the “Bachelor in Paradise” played on the hotel television.
Several attendees pointed to Welder’s connections to Sanders as what first drew them to his candidacy. Welder served as an organizer and delegate for Sanders during the 2016 election.
“Bernie Sanders — he worked with him and he’s endorsed by him — that was it for me,” said Chuck Tackett, a former local leader for the Communication Workers of America.
Emily Magness, a 19-year-old intern on Davids’ campaign, noted 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.”
Billie Espino, a retiree who has lived in Kansas City, Kan., for six decades, pointed to Davids’ status as a “self-made person” as part of her appeal.
Davids attended Johnson County Community College before eventually making her way to Cornell Law School and serving as a White House fellow in the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration.
“I saw her going door to door and it just impressed me that anybody worked that hard. … She was sure stumping,” Espino said after voting Tuesday morning.
Davids has received significant support from Emily’s List, a national women’s group that put hundreds of thousands towards Davids’ candidacy through its Women Vote PAC.
Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said the visit from Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez helped underscore Welder’s populist economic message for voters ahead of the primary vote.
“Kansas can prove something to the nation,” said Green, whose organization raised roughly $100,000 on behalf of Welder’s candidacy.
“Brent Welder can prove in Kansas that a bold, economic populist message of fighting for working people… is a winning message for Democrats everywhere.”
Welder’s detractors, however, say that he is Yoder’s preferred candidate to face in the general election.
In the final days of the race, Ending Spending, a GOP-leaning dark-money group, has paid for robocalls and commercials that attack Welder as too progressive. His opponents say the ads are actually meant to boost Welder’s candidacy by spreading his name.
Voters in Johnson County received text messages Monday telling them that Welder was too progressive in Kansas because he wants “free healthcare and a higher minimum wage.”
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said said that Welder would be vulnerable in the general election because of an email his campaign sent about the deaths of two sheriff’s deputies in Wyandotte County, which led readers to a fundraising page if they signed a petition. Welder apologized for the email and donated the money to the deputies’ families.
“The day after the primary, the strategy to kneecap Welder as a candidate is very, very obvious. And it’s more than just Bernie Sanders. It goes back to that fundraising story,” Miller said.
The Republican race in the 2nd District pits political newcomer Steve Watkins, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, against four current members of the Legislature and two other experienced politicians.
Watkins, who has borrowed heavily from President Donald 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.
Watkins’ 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.
Watkins led Tyson 26 percent to 23 percent with 882 of 917 precincts reporting. After declaring him the winner, the Washing-based Cook Political Report shifted its rating of the race from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.”
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.
Miller 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.