Kansas voters made history Tuesday when they selected Sharice Davids to be their next congresswoman.
Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, will be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress — a distinction she shared with New Mexico’s Deb Haaland, who also won Tuesday — and the first openly LGBT person to represent the state of Kansas.
The political newcomer defeated four-term incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder to capture Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District. It’s the first time a Democrat has won the suburban Kansas City seat in a decade.
“We have the opportunity to reset expectations about what people think when they think of Kansas,” Davids said during her victory speech before hundreds of supporters at the Embassy Suites in Olathe. “We know there are so many of us who welcome everyone, who see everyone and who know that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed.”
With 616 of 628 precincts reporting, Davids had 54 percent of the vote to Yoder’s 44 percent.
“It’s significant beyond Kansas,” said Davis Hammett, an LGBT rights activist from Topeka. “This is significant to all LGBT folks in the Midwest. She really feels like the voice for all the LGBT folks in the Midwest. And I know that there’s a similar feeling in Native American communities.”
Davids’ campaign benefited from anger against Republican President Donald Trump in a district that went for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the previous election, but she also took steps to engage voters that had felt ignored by previous Democratic nominees to pull off a victory that may have seemed improbable a year ago.
Davids spent five years working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota before being selected for the prestigious White House fellowship program in 2016. The people who knew her on Pine Ridge have been watching the Kansas race closely.
“To see an indigenous woman in leadership would be a source of inspiration for a lot of young people here,” said Liz Welch, who worked with Davids at the Thunder Valley Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that built housing on the reservation.
Davids joins a line of other Native American trailblazers to come from Kansas. Her election to Congress comes 90 years after Kansan Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation, was elected vice president, serving under Herbert Hoover.
Davids’ victory puts a halt on Yoder’s steady political rise during his 15 years of public service in Topeka and Washington. This year, he became chair of the powerful Homeland Security budget committee, putting him in charge of funding Trump’s pet proposal for a wall along the southern border.
“There will be prognosticators who look back at our record, and they’ll say if I cast a vote differently or if I had stood up every day and just spurned the president, opposing the administration every day, that if I had done those things differently then I would have won this race,” Yoder said during his concession speech at the DoubleTree Hotel in Overland Park.
“But even if you looked me in the eye and told me that if I changed those things that it would have changed tonight’s outcome, I wouldn’t have done it.”
A source close to Yoder lamented the National Republican Congressional Committee’s September decision to pull out of spending in the district after polls showed Davids ahead. Yoder didn’t even receive a courtesy phone call when that happened. He discovered the news on Twitter, the source said.
Davids’ election comes just six months after the Kansas Legislature passed a law that enabled faith-based adoption agencies to remain eligible for state dollars even if they refuse to place children with same-sex couples.
The LGBT community has felt like “a punching bag” for the state’s politicians in recent years, but Davids’ election means LGBT Kansans are “finally going to have a seat at the table,” Hammett said.
“There’s this image of Kansas as this backward, bigoted place and it’s really powerful to see something positive come from it,” said Hammett, who co-founded Equality House, a rainbow-painted house in Topeka that sits across the street from the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. “Having figures like Sharice Davids literally saves lives.”
Roughly a month before Election Day, Davids paid a visit to Q-Space, an LGBT youth group of 30 young people that meets weekly at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe.
Davids talked to the kids about coming out to her family, listened to their stories about bullying and offered words of comfort, said Cassandra Peters, the youth group’s director.
“She took time to hug each and every one of them and take a picture with them,” Peters said. “If they wanted a sign, she autographed it. And it was just so comforting for them to think this person is a politician and cares about them.”
During the campaign, Yoder repeatedly hammered Davids as too inexperienced and too radical to represent the district, which covers Johnson, Wyandotte and Miami counties. But Davids’ candidacy was boosted by first-time volunteers and first-timer voters, who were motivated to get involved in the wake of Trump’s election.
Pop music blared at Davids’ party in Olathe and supporters danced in celebration as Democrats piled up victories around Kansas and the nation.
Wendy Budetti, an Olathe resident whose 13-year-old gay son volunteered on the campaign, became teary-eyed as she talked about what Davids’ win would mean for other kids like her son — especially ones that don’t have supportive parents.
“Other kids like him who don’t get that kind of affirming message from their parents, they see it. They can see it that the community’s going to support them,” she said.
Cindy Bain, a Missouri resident, said she and her partner have been volunteering for Davids since early in the campaign. The women have two adopted children, who are members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
“We want someone at the table who will have a voice for them, a vote for them. There’s been no voice. There’s been silence,” Bain said, explaining that she wasn’t even this excited when President Barack Obama was elected.
Davids’ victory coincided with wins by a pair of LGBT candidates the Kansas House. Democrats Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz will be the first openly LGBT people to serve in the Kansas Legislature after winning in the Kansas House Districts 30 and 23.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Davids’ election demonstrates that Kansas is more culturally diverse and politically competitive than many national pundits realize.
“I am often surprised by how many times I encounter reporters who think the entire state is small towns of 500 people who are 90 percent for Trump,” Miller said. “I think when we do come onto the radar it forces people to realize there’s more happening.”
Davids also took steps to engage voters in Wyandotte County, something previous Democratic nominees have struggled to do in recent elections.
Davids’ promise to open a district office in the county appealed to voters in downtown Kansas City, Kan. Yoder only has an office in Johnson County.
“That’s the difference,” said Mike McIntosh, a 55-year-old contractor, who voted Monday morning at the Wyandotte County Election Office. “If you’re going to represent the people you (should) be where the people are to represent and not somewhere else. He’s strictly on one side.”
Davids said during her speech in Olathe that her experience as the child of a single parent and a first-generation college student are not uncommon in the nation, but they’ve been treated as uncommon in Congress.
Chandler Herron, a 20-year-old musician from Kansas City, Kan., pointed to education as the main reason he voted for Davids, who has talked on the campaign trail about her own experience with student debt.
Referencing Davids’ stint as a mixed martial arts fighter, Herron said, “I just felt like she can have my back in office and she could have my back in a fight.”