Sharice Davids broke through a crowded Democratic field Tuesday to win her party’s nomination to take on Republican congressman Kevin Yoder in November.
But the Johnson County lawyer did something else in the hotly contested, closely watched race. She became Kansas’s first openly gay, Native American nominee for Congress.
Davids, the winner of a six-way primary race, will face Yoder, a vulnerable GOP incumbent from Overland Park, in the general election. No Native American woman has ever been elected to Congress.
Her bid to unseat Yoder is a microcosm for what Democrats are trying to do nationwide: Win in suburban, college-educated districts where Democrat Hillary Clinton did well in 2016.
So it was no surprise that Davids on Wednesday immediately linked Yoder to Trump, who has endorsed him.
“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,” Davids said in a statement.
Yoder’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Davids’ victory on Wednesday.
The National Republican Congressional Committee issued a statement calling Davids “the farthest left candidate by emerging from the most liberal field Kansas City has ever seen.”
NRCC spokeswoman Kerry Rom dismissed Davids’ policy positions as “far out of step with this district.”
Yoder has won Kansas’ 3rd congressional district by double digits in every election going back to 2010.
But Democrats are optimistic about their chances this year in Yoder’s suburban Kansas City district, which Democrat Hillary Clinton won by a single percentage point in the 2016 presidential race.
After Davids’ victory became official on Wednesday, The Cook Political Report, a prominent nonpartisan publication that analyzes congressional races, changed its rating for Kansas’ 3rd district race from “lean Republican” to “tossup.”
Dave Wasserman, an editor with Cook, said it’s clear from special election results this cycle that Democrats are doing exceptionally well in districts like Yoder’s. Kansas’ 3rd district is one of the most highly educated congressional districts in the country — 46 percent of adults over age 25 hold bachelor’s degrees. It’s suburban and has a relatively high median income.
“If the same pattern holds in Kansas City, then Yoder would lose,” Wasserman said.
“Sharice Davids has an unconventional background for this district as a gay, Native American mixed martial arts fighter, but she’s got a lot of energy behind her,” he said. “And Yoder only took 68 percent of the primary vote on the Republican side, which is a pretty poor showing for a four-term incumbent.”
Republicans privately fretted on Wednesday at the prospect of a divisive recount in the governor’s race that could prolong uncertainty about who will be at the top of the Republican ticket in Kansas — and keep Republicans focused on attacking each other instead of their Democratic foes. Secretary of State Kris Kobach led Gov. Jeff Colyer by just 191 votes Wednesday, with provisional and some mail-in votes still to be counted.
Four GOP strategists who asked not to be named in order to speak frankly told The Star they feared a Kobach victory could end up flipping half of the state’s four congressional seats from red to blue in November.
“It’s fair to say the consensus view is that we’re gonna lose that state and two House races to boot if he’s the (nominee),” said one Republican strategist close to Republican Governors Association donors, referring to Kobach.
Davids hasn’t explicitly tried to tie Yoder to Kobach, but in her first public statement after her victory Wednesday, she called Yoder an “extremist” and “a pawn for Trump” who has tried to undermine health care access and give tax breaks for large corporations.
Trump consults Kobach regularly on immigration policy and he endorsed Kobach on Twitter the day before the primary.
“If you’ve got a situation where Kobach wins by a couple hundred votes, I don’t think Democrats could have designed it any better,” said Burdett Loomis, political science professor at the University of Kansas.
“It’s going to depress turnout for Republicans and be really problematic,” said Loomis, who worked in former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration.
Before it was clear whether Davids or Brent Welder would triumph on Tuesday, Yoder said either one of them would be too “radical” to represent the district.
“They don’t know Kansas, they don’t know our values, and neither of them should be our voice in Washington, D.C.,” Yoder said.
As the general election campaign gets underway, going negative on Davids could present pitfalls for Yoder given the historic nature of Davids’ candidacy.
“I do think there’s potential because of the education level of the district, and it’s got a decently sized non-white population, there’s a chance for blowback” from negative ads or campaigning, said Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
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 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 would have enabled businesses and religious groups to refuse service to same-sex couples based on religious views of marriage. The bill was later 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.”
Davids won Tuesday’s Democratic primary by capturing 37 percent of the vote, edging out her closest competitor in Welder, who received 34 percent, by 2,088 votes. Welder had been endorsed by Democratic socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
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.
Davids found out she had won while she was in the car Wednesday morning on the way to the hospital to visit a campaign staffer, who had just had a baby. Her mother told her the news.
Davids thanked her rival Democrats in the race “for their passion and for engaging in a spirited and important debate about the future of this district and this country.”
Welder called Davids about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to congratulate her and say he looks forward to supporting her.
All five of her former competitors joined her at a Democratic unity rally at noon Wednesday, where they agreed to put the contentious primary behind them and turn their attention to defeating Yoder.
Earlier in the day, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threw its 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.”