Elections

A ‘blue wave’ in red Kansas? Democrats churn, Republicans resist as midterms near

Johnson County Democrats pushing for a blue wave in Kansas

Volunteers gather at the Johnson County Democratic Party office on 75th Street to make calls, organize campaign literature and ready yard signs as they push for a blue wave in a state controlled by Republicans.
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Volunteers gather at the Johnson County Democratic Party office on 75th Street to make calls, organize campaign literature and ready yard signs as they push for a blue wave in a state controlled by Republicans.

On a recent night inside Johnson County’s Democratic headquarters, a storefront in a strip shopping center at 75th Street and Antioch Road, its walls covered in Obama, Clinton and other campaign posters, volunteer Pat McGarry eyes the name on his laptop’s call list.

All around him, some 15 volunteers are making easier calls. The room buzzes with their voices. They’re phoning registered Democrats — deemed “persuadables,” because they sometimes vote, but not always — and unaffiliated voters, urging them to turn out at the polls Nov. 6 to help turn Republican red Kansas toward Democrat blue.

But McGarry’s job is harder: Call the opposition. Call Republican voters. Because if the Democratic party in Kansas expects to elect a Democratic governor, to increase its numbers in the state legislature, and to perhaps flip the country by turning the U.S. House of Representatives from a Republican to a Democratic majority, it’s going to take more than just Democrats to do it.

McGarry dials the number in front of him.

“May I speak to Timothy, please?” he says. “Timothy, my name is Pat McGarry. I’m a volunteer with the Kansas Democratic Party. And we’re calling people in the community tonight about the Nov. 6 general election. Do you have a few seconds to talk to me?”

The 71-year-old man on the other end of the call expresses surprise. He’s no Democrat.

“I understand that,” McGarry says. “I’m calling Republicans, because there’s a lot of people ... ”

Timothy interrupts. Democrat?

“I am with the Democratic party,” McGarry says. “But we call a lot of Republicans, too, because there are a lot of Republicans who aren’t satisfied with the current candidate,” although he doesn’t say which one, “and we’re offering ... “

The man interrupts again. McGarry tries to speak the candidate’s name. “Laur -” for Laura Kelly, a long-time state senator running for governor against the Republican candidate, current Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and independent Greg Orman.

McGarry presses on. “Yes, for Laura Kelly.”

The man begins to rail.

“OK,” McGarry says, listening. “OK. I appreciate that. Sorry to bother you, sir. OK. Bye, bye.”

“Wow,” McGarry says after ending the call. “He goes, ‘I’m a Republican, goddammit. What are you calling me for? ... I’m going to vote for Kobach’ . . . He goes, ‘There’s no way I’m going to vote for a Democrat.’ He couldn’t believe a Democrat was calling him.”

Lose Kansas, lose the House

Nationwide, politicos and pundits talk about “a blue wave,” the Democrats’ wishful catchphrase of the upcoming midterm election. It speaks of Democrat votes and voters rising this November and having their influence wash across the country.

Should it develop, they suggest, much of it will have come in swelling response to the election in 2016 of Donald Trump, whose presidency and policies — welcomed as unconventional by his followers, deemed unhinged to his detractors — have further split an already divided nation.

In Missouri, Democrats again find incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill on the defensive, in her pitched battle against Missouri’s Attorney General Josh Hawley in the ever-reddening state. September polls show them dead even.

But in Kansas, where many races remain equally tight, it is the Democrats who find themselves growing in confidence, optimistic — although guardedly so — that, if voters turn out in the right numbers, the governor’s chair, two of the state’s four seats in Congress, the office of Kansas secretary of state, state treasurer and a number of down-ballot legislative seats could turn from red to blue.

Kansas Republicans know they are wrapped in a major battle.

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“Make no mistake about it,” Jim Joice, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, wrote in an email to The Star, “we have a very tough cycle on our hands. We’ve known this was going to be the case for some time now and have been preparing accordingly. We’ve got unique challenges this year, and it is up to us to turn them into unique advantages.”

The stakes are high. The U.S. House of Representatives is composed of 435 seats, and Democrats need to gather at least 218 seats to win control — a pick-up of 23. Joice predicts that if Kansas makes the turn from red to blue, so will the nation.

“If we lose a seat in Kansas, you better believe we lost the House,” Joice wrote. “Kansas voters are smart. They understand the consequences of a Democrat-controlled House. . . . Kansans can’t afford their liberal fairytale world.”

The Kansas GOP, he continued, “is determined to retain our congressional stronghold, retain residency at (the governor’s mansion) Cedar Crest, and retain and refill our majorities in the statehouse. We will show up to the polls as a unified Republican party and we will win.”

Based on the what Kansas party Democrats are seeing statewide, they don’t think Republicans should be so sure.

They also insist that if Democrats are able to capture the governor’s race, two congressional seats and more, it won’t be because of a “blue wave” driven solely by anti-Trump sentiment.

Inside the Johnson County headquarters, Brooklynne Mosley all but rolls her eyes at the phrase. At 34, she is a military veteran, a Kansas City native who spent 10 years in the U.S. Air Force. She refueled jets over Iraq and Afghanistan, worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and now, as deputy executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, is in charge of coordinating the party’s campaign for state offices.

“I think that when you say there is a ‘blue wave’ coming,” Mosley says, “that makes it seem as if it is something that is naturally occurring, that this is something that no one’s put work behind. But, really, when you think about it, Kansas Democrats have been working hard since Secretary Pompeo got nominated and confirmed to head the CIA.”

Mike Pompeo was a Republican congressman representing the Wichita area when Trump chose him for the post in 2018.

Mosley sits next to Nancy Leiker, chair of the Democratic Party of Johnson County, who has unfurled a political map of Johnson County onto the table top in front of her. Outside, volunteer caller Jerry Holmes, gray haired like many of the volunteers here, slaps a bellboy bell at the side of his laptop - the signal that he’s signed up another Johnson County volunteer.

Holmes, a Hillary Clinton supporter who retired from a career in bill collections, was crushed when Clinton lost two years ago. “Painful,” he says. He now gives 13 hours each week, “to do everything I can to have an impact,” working the phones. The top caller in the Johnson County office, his name is printed in Sharpie on the leader board, having dialed close to 2,000 numbers pushing the Democrats’ cause.

Tonight, he’ll slap the bell five times, as he signs up volunteers. Everyone in the office will clap. Dozens of voters each day call or walk through the party’s doors to volunteer for various candidates.

“To me,” Leiker says, “a ‘blue wave’ sounds like its externally powered — wind blowing and the water is coming at us and people get into office. That is absolutely not true. What is true is that we’re working. We’re working. And we’re working really, really hard. And we’re making it happen.”

Kansas voters on Nov. 6 will cast ballots to decide more than 170 races — for judges, members of the state board of education and all 125 state representatives. But three bellwether races stand out:

Republican Kris Kobach vs. Democrat Laura Kelly and independent Greg Orman for governor.

Republican Kevin Yoder vs. Democrat Sharice Davids in the 3rd Congressional District, representing voters in Johnson, Wyandotte and part of Miami counties.

Republican Steve Watkins vs. Democrat Paul Davis in the 2nd Congressional District, which runs between the Nebraska and Oklahoma borders in a band through Leavenworth, Lawrence and Topeka.

Voter rolls and bankrolls

By numbers alone, most races would seem to be a long shot for Democratic candidates.

Of the state’s 1.8 million registered voters — rolls show that Republicans, at 790,000, far outnumber registered Democrats at 436,000.

In terms of money, Federal Election Commission numbers show Kansas’ Republican congressional candidates have, in most cases, raised more and, in some cases, far more than their Democrat opponents.

As of June, Yoder had raised $2.8 million compared with Davids’ $345,000. Federal Election Commission figures also show that both have since garnered more than $2 million each from outside groups pouring money into the tight fight for media and other buys.

Polls on the site FiveThirtyEight.com currently show the two candidates locked at dead even, with a small poll by the The New York Times (barely 500 people surveyed) putting Davids ahead of Yoder by eight points.

Only in the 2nd Congressional District has the Democratic candidate, Davis, out-raised his Republican opponent, Watkins.

Davis’ $1.6 million was nearly $1 million more than Watkins’ $640,000. But the two draw close to even when more recent outside money for advertising is tossed in.

Polls in RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight also show Davis and Watkins in a near dead heat.

Then there is the governor’s race: Kobach vs. Kelly vs. Orman. In that, filings show that Kobach, by the end of June, had raised $2 million, the great mass of it spent prior to his primary, compared to only $720,000 raised at that point by Democrat Kelly. Orman, the independent, had $1.3 million.

Although money counts in politics, it doesn’t account for everything.

“Even though there are 70 or so competitive (U.S. congressional) districts, the fact that Kansas 2 and 3 are way up on the list is really fascinating,” says Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “Those are districts that Republicans ought to be winning. And yet Republicans are throwing an immense amount of money into those districts.

“To me that is an indicator they are really fighting a blue wave.”

He sees what he called “natural forces at work.”

“Kansas 3,” he says of the district around Johnson, Wyandotte and Miami counties, “is just a classic, highly educated suburban district where all the national polls are showing that women in general, Republican women and independent women, reacting very badly to Trump and often reacting badly to congressional candidates.”

He continued: “Kansas does have this — particularly in the Johnson County area — this long tradition of being moderate Republican. So you’ve got Laura Kelly definitely activating those women this year. And Sharice Davids, a surprise nominee, creating lots of energy. And for better or for worse, Kevin Yoder is stuck with being on Trump’s team — and Trump is upside down 16 points in Kansas 3. I’m not sure Yoder has found a way to extricate himself, and I’m not sure he can.”

In the 2nd Congressional District, Democrat Davis has the advantage of being a known and respected Kansan, Loomis says. The former Kansas House minority leader lost his bid for governor to Sam Brownback in 2014. Nonetheless, he proved popular in the 2nd District, picking up more votes than the governor.

His Republican opponent, Watkins, meantime, has been a lightning rod for criticism.

A 41-year-old former Army Ranger, Watkins is a political newcomer whose race in the primary was strongly financed by his father, a Topeka physician. In the run-up to the primary, members of his own party questioned Watkins’ bonafides in declaring himself a conservative, as he had first approached Democrats before launching his bid for the House seat.

Last week, an investigation by The Star showed Watkins, who has claimed that he was a successful businessman who built a defense contracting company, VIAP Inc., in the Middle East from scratch, actually had not.

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In terms of the governor’s race, although Democrat Kelly does not have the same name recognition as Kobach, Loomis noted that to many voters, Kobach is as much infamous as he is famous, offering Democrats an opportunity.

Prior to winning his Republican primary, Trump tweeted a full endorsement of Kobach in his race against the sitting governor, Jeff Colyer:

“Kris Kobach, a strong and early supporter of mine, is running for Governor of the Great State of Kansas. He is a fantastic guy who loves his State and our Country - he will be a GREAT Governor.”

Political analysts thought that the president’s endorsement might torpedo Kobach’s candidacy. Instead, the endorsement has since been credited with helping hoist Kobach to a win, albeit by just 343 votes.

Polls show Kelly and Kobach locked in a nearly even race in voters’ minds, with Kobach polling 1 point ahead of Kelly. That’s well within the margin of error. Orman polled at 9 percent, numbers he disputes.

Blue Dems in Red Coats

With so many races so close, Kansas Democrats know there aren’t enough Democrat voters alone to turn races blue.

But they also know that not all Republicans are conservative Republicans. Inside the 790,000 registered Republicans in the state, they are convinced there are persuadable moderates that are more purple than deep red and who might swing Democrat.

Precedent certainly exists: five of the state’s 10 most recent governors were Democrats. The state had two Democrat seats in Congress as recently as 2009, with Dennis Moore and Nancy Boyda.

Also among Republican voters are what Democrats insist are RINOs: “Republicans In Name Only” — voters who, although they may have registered as Republicans to vote in primaries, are true blue Democrat voters in red coats.

Their goal is to reach those voters in a way that, while recognizing Trump dissatisfaction, focuses more on local and state issues that matter to Kansans’ daily lives, like taxes and cuts to education.

“You can’t just count on Trump in order to win,” Mosely says. “If that were true than we would have President Clinton.”

Beyond that, Mosley says, there is the untapped pool of “unaffiliated” voters — some 558,000 in the state, far more than there there are even registered Democrats, at 436,000. Those votes are up for grabs. There are 122,000 of them in Johnson County alone; 108,000 in Sedgwick County, 27,000 in Douglas County and 26,000 in Wyandotte County.

“You don’t win by just getting Democrats, because you’ll lose every time,” Leiker says. “So what you have to do is get the largest percentage of those unaffiliated voters.”

Jason Glazer’s goal is to do just that. And, if he can, to urge wavering Democrats to vote.

He pulls his white SUV along the curb in Shawnee, gets out and shuts the door. Age 42, Glazer stands 6 feet 4 inches tall. He’s a muscular workout buff in a sweatshirt, sleeveless to reveal his athletic arms, and with a hood bearing the stars of the American flag just for this task.

Until this cycle, Glazer, who travels the country and world as a sales trainer and motivator, had never before volunteered to canvass for an election and walk door to door to drum up voters. But this year he felt compelled.

“I’ll tell you, man, Trump,” he says in explaining his new political involvement. “It’s a mess.”

Glazer walks with purpose, carrying literature for Laura Kelly and other Johnson County candidates. He has a canvass list on his phone, with names and addresses of residents and their party affiliation as best as it is known: primarily marked D or U for unaffiliated.

At front doors, he knocks or rings, then he steps back. He knows his size can be imposing. The first name on his phone, Michael, 37, is marked as a D, but it’s unclear if he votes.

“Michael?” Glazer says as the door swings open. Yes, the guy says.

“Jason Glazer. I’m here with the Democratic Party. You got a couple minutes to answer some question for me?”

Sure, Michael says.

“Well, Nov. 6 is the election coming up, right? If you were voting today,” Glazer says, “who would you be voting for for governor?”

“I mean, I don’t even know who’s running,” Michael shares, which Glazer has found is a common response.

Michael goes on to say that his wife and wife’s parents are strong Republicans so he will probably vote for whomever they vote for. “I feel like it won’t affect me one way or the other who’s there or not. Seems the same to me. “

Glazer tells him a bit about Laura Kelly. Urges him to get out to vote, then leaves. He refrains from offering him an advance ballot, given his family’s tilt.

“I don’t want to make it easier for him to check that R,” Glazer says as he walks to another door.

Over the next hour or more, he will go to home after home, D’s and U’s. Most have zero idea who is running in any race and don’t seem to care. Volunteers at the phone banks hear much of the same. It concerns Glazer.

“I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced of the ‘blue wave,’” he says. “That’s why I’m out here.”

He talks to a Republican woman on the sidewalk, walking her dog, who thinks Sharice Davids is a socialist. He meets a few Democrats who are solid voters and insist they’ll go to the polls.

“Have you seen what’s going on?” says a woman, Daljit Dhaliwal, who promises to vote Democrat with her daughter.

Glazer wants to make sure.

“Can I get you an advance ballot?” he says. He’s done calculations. The last time Glazer was out, he canvassed 30 homes, talked to 10 people, got 4 advance ballots sent out. His plan is to canvass eight hours each week until the election, and he ought to get 120 ballots to wavering voters.

“If I’m sitting here on Election Night and we lose those House seats or the governorship by 40 votes, I’ll be sick to my stomach that I didn’t do something,” he says

Mosley, the deputy executive of the Kansas Democratic Party, in no way guarantees major offices will flip Democrat in November just because Democrats want it so.

“I will get a little religious,” she says. “Faith without works is dead. You can’t just think that we’re going to wish our way into winning in November. . . . Nothing is inevitable. I think when Democrats get very cocky about things, we get what happened in 2016.”

As such, she says, the party, has taken steps it hasn’t taken before, with multiple field offices in every congressional district. Instead of counting on student volunteers, the party is paying Democrat student organizers at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Fort Hays State University, Pittsburg State University and Wichita State University.

The party has identified Wyandotte County as crucial to Democrat wins in November. Although the county is a known Democratic stronghold, party leaders know that winning will be a numbers game. They’re looking to garner about 29,000 Democrat votes, a number equal to the entire number of votes cast in the county in the 2014 general election.

“Having a solid turnout in Wyandotte County is going to be the difference maker in having Congresswoman Sharice Davis, having Governor Laura Kelly,” Mosley says.

As a result the state party now has an election field office operating in Wyandotte County. Excitement over Davids, whose campaign also operates a field office in Kansas City, Kan., is especially high.

The state office, at 78th Street and Parallel Parkway, hasn’t been able to keep the candidate’s campaign signs in stock.

It’s Thursday. Volunteers put together signs, stuff envelopes, make calls. On a TV, live footage runs of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee, responding with angry indignation to the accusation that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when both were teenagers.

On her cell phone, volunteer Renee Van Ross dials a name from her phone bank list. There’s a “U” next to the name.

“Hi,” Van Ross says. “I’m calling from the Kansas Democratic Office. And we’re talking to people in the community about the Nov. 6 general election.”

The man fills her ear. He’s not undecided. He, too, is watching the Kavanaugh hearing and is aghast at the Democrats’ treatment of the judge.

The call ends, and Van Ross hangs up.

“I was just told this person hopes the Democrats burn in hell,” she says.

She picks up her phone and dials the next name on her list.

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