Voters were angry when they sent Kevin Yoder to Washington. Now, their anger might send him home.
The Overland Park Republican was swept into Congress on a GOP wave in 2010, capturing a previously solid Democratic seat in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district by a 19-point margin as anger at President Barack Obama handed Republicans control of the U.S. House two years into Obama’s first term.
“This is a district that can swing wildly from party to party,” Yoder said, noting that his Democratic predecessor Dennis Moore won the district by 16 points in 2008.
Yoder has won the district by double digits every election since then, but now Yoder is in danger of being swept out of his suburban congressional seat by a national Democratic wave fueled by anger against President Donald Trump, who narrowly lost the district in 2016.
Yoder has steadily risen since coming to Congress, taking the reins of the Homeland Security budget subcommittee this year — a position that places him at the center of the contentious debate over border security.
Trump enthusiastically endorsed Yoder in July after the Kansas congressman personally placed $5 billion in funding for a border wall, Trump’s pet issue, into the Homeland Security budget bill.
As early voting started in Johnson County this week, Yoder’s support for Trump— he’s voted with the president 92 percent of the time — is one of the main reasons some voters who have always supported him in the past are casting their votes for Democrat Sharice Davids.
Jeff Bell, a 51-year-old software developer from Overland Park who identifies as a fiscal conservative, has voted for Yoder in the past but said it’s time for a change.
“I just know I’m voting Democratic because I don’t like Trump,” Bell said.
Yoder said he’s frustrated that his “independent record” has been obscured this election as some voters rehash the 2016 presidential election.
“I have a great reputation for constituent services and helping veterans… And the voters who know about that will say — whether they voted for (Hillary) Clinton or Trump — that I’m doing a good job,” Yoder said.
Yoder also disputed the notion that he hasn’t stood up to Trump.
He said he was the only Republican on the House Appropriations Committee to support a Democratic amendment to block any attempt to defund Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, which Trump has often decried as a “witch hunt.”
Yoder also pointed to his decision to speak out against family separations at the southern border in his capacity as Homeland Security budget chairman, noting that the Trump administration backtracked on the policy within 24 hours of a meeting Yoder had with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.
Yoder also sought to undercut the idea that his opponent is better suited to hold Trump accountable than him, arguing that Davids technically worked for the Trump administration.
Davids worked at the Department of Transportation after being selected as part of the final class of White House fellows under Obama, but Yoder noted that her fellowship continued into the first year of Trump’s presidency.
“What is it in her track record that tells us she would actually stand up to President Trump when she worked for him?” Yoder said. “She worked for the agenda. I just think it seems to be a pretty weak promise… when she already had a chance to do it and she didn’t.”
The same attack had been used by supporters of Davids’ Democratic rival Brent Welder ahead of the primary, but Welder had refrained from using it himself. Davids called the attack laughable.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Yoder’s decision to recycle the attack reflects the direness of his position in a race where he’s consistently trailed in public polls.
“First, that attack is insane. Those fellowship positions are nonpartisan internships, essentially. They are not political appointments,” Miller said.
“I think we know that Yoder is the underdog here. He is not in a good position for re-election. Look at all the polling…The ridiculousness of that attack makes it sound desperate.”
Stephanie Sharp, a Johnson County-based consultant who works with moderate Republicans, said that GOP candidates across the Kansas City suburbs have struggled to distance themselves from Trump in the eyes of voters this election.
“Trump is the bogeyman and it doesn’t matter how different you are from Trump. It doesn’t matter how much you break away from Trump. The Democrats still tie you to him because we’re in the same party,” said Sharp, who served in the Kansas Legislature with Yoder.
At early voting locations, several Republican voters pointed to frustration with the president as their reason for voting for Davids.
Terry Poulos, a 69-year-old Republican, said she feels like she’s living in a bad dream under Trump.
“I’m not going to vote Republican again for a very long time,” said Poulos, a retired teacher from the Shawnee Mission school district who voted for Yoder in 2016.
“I don’t think Kevin Yoder has really spoken up forcefully about Donald Trump and his policies,” Poulos said. “Plus, he’s voted with him consistently. I’m sorry. I just don’t trust Republicans anymore. Isn’t that sad?”
Yoder has struggled to find a consistent message on Trump. Despite attacking Davids for working for the administration, he also warned that a Democratic Congress would pursue the president’s impeachment.
“That’s not going to get things done. That’s going to create more anger and more frustration,” he said.
Yoder’s best hope for re-election is that GOP voters rally around him in the final days of the campaign to keep the House in GOP control.
“You can poll the district. They may be frustrated with Donald Trump… but no one here wants Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House again,” Yoder said.
Republicans held the edge in turnout after the first week of advance voting in the district.
As of Friday morning, 25,031 Republicans had cast early ballots in the district compared to 19,550 Democrats, according to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. Another 6,521 unaffiliated voters also cast early ballots.
Several GOP voters said they voted for Yoder because he’s a Republican.
Susan Reynolds, a 66-year old retiree from Overland Park, said she voted for Yoder because he has experience in Congress.
“I just can’t vote for someone that has no experience at all,” Reynolds said about Davids.
Jerry Malone, a 67-year-old who ran against Yoder in the 2010 GOP primary, said he was hopeful that Yoder will win based on turnout at an early voting site in Johnson County.
“This other woman...she seems too liberal for me,” Malone said. “But surprisingly this district seems a little more, I guess, it’s full of RINOs (Republicans in name only) and Democrats.”
House Republicans campaigned on hefty promises of replacing the Affordable Care Act and passing immigration reform. Neither of those things has happened yet.
When asked if his party deserved another two years of congressional control, Yoder blamed Senate Democrats for blocking GOP legislation from moving forward.
“We’re in the engine room here churning out over a thousand bills in the House,” Yoder said.
He also pointed to the 2017 tax cuts, which he supported, as an example of the Republican Congress making good on its promises to voters.
But in a state where many voters are still bristling over former Gov. Sam Brownback’s now-repealed tax cuts, are tax cuts a winning issue?
“When you start talking about how strong the economy is, most heads start nodding that the economy is stronger than two years ago,” Yoder said.
Sharp said that Yoder has done more to build relationships with community groups in the district than many voters realize, but she said that work has gone unnoticed during the contentious race.
“The haters spew all this stuff that Kevin doesn’t do this or Kevin doesn’t do that. If you’re part of any organization in the district, he’s come to talk to you and answer questions. Maybe he doesn’t want to do a town hall because all they want to do is come and yell,” Sharp said.