Dave Helling

Why Kevin Yoder may have little control over his own election fate

Rep. Kevin Yoder is the underdog in the 3rd Congressional District race in Kansas, pulled down largely by Donald Trump’s gravity. Yoder has tried unsuccessfully to avoid being tied to the president.
Rep. Kevin Yoder is the underdog in the 3rd Congressional District race in Kansas, pulled down largely by Donald Trump’s gravity. Yoder has tried unsuccessfully to avoid being tied to the president. The Associated Press

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, a story.

A veteran congressman seeks re-election. He’s a familiar face — reliably partisan, with a few moderate notes in the mix. Free of major scandal. Since his political party controls the House, raising money isn’t a concern.

His opponent is a little-known newcomer with coveted “outsider” status, and an enthusiastic base of support.

But the opponent isn’t really the problem. The congressman’s party also controls the White House, where an unpopular incumbent sits after two years in office. The president fumbled in his first days, and his credibility remains an issue. An improving economy isn’t much help.

The public is angry with Washington and really angry with incumbents. The first midterm election is typically a challenge for the in-power party. A wave election is coming, aimed at the party in power, and the congressman is powerless to stop it — or save his seat.

It’s a true story, of course. The ill-fated candidate? Dan Glickman, a Democrat from Kansas’ 4th Congressional District, in and around Wichita. Glickman served in the House for 18 years before losing to Todd Tiahrt in the Republican wave election of 1994.

If you thought of Kevin Yoder, though, you’re on the right track. “History was not with me, nor is it with Kevin,” Glickman said this week.

Like all comparisons, this one is imperfect. Abortion politics, and the decline of organized labor’s support for Democrats, cost Glickman dearly in 1994. Neither seems to be a major issue in this cycle in the Kansas 3rd District.

Also, we don’t know if a wave election is coming. There are signs the GOP is bouncing back in the closing days of the campaign.

And we don’t know if Yoder will lose. He’s in trouble — in its election forecast, the website FiveThirtyEight now gives him a 78 percent chance of losing to Democrat Sharice Davids, based on polling and other analysis — but actual votes have yet to be counted.

Still, the context of the Yoder-Davids race is similar to that of Glickman-Tiahrt: Both are, or were, nationalized races, with unpopular second-year presidents at the center of voters’ decision-making process.

It’s tempting to have some sympathy for Yoder’s tough position here. He’s stumbled once or twice — by accepting contributions from payday loan magnates, for example — but he has largely served as one would expect a Republican congressman in Kansas to serve.

In most years, that should be enough. And if anyone other than Donald Trump were president, Yoder’s seat would likely be safe.

But this isn’t a typical year, and Trump is the president. He’s a disaster with most women voters and well-educated voters, precisely the target electorate in the Kansas 3rd District. Those voters want a congressional check on Trump’s worst instincts, and they know only Democrats can provide it.

Yoder has always needed to find a way to appeal to those moderate voters while not alienating Trump backers. It’s an almost impossible task, particularly when the president is tweeting his endorsement and supporting you in person ( “Incredible guy,” Trump said of Yoder in Kansas City.)

Yet Yoder isn’t blameless here. He has failed to distance himself from Trump, wavered on immigration policy and voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act while claiming support for pre-existing conditions coverage.

In 2016, reporters begged Yoder to say something critical of then-candidate Trump. He demurred.

The campaign has been disappointing. Davids’ command of issues seems thin, and her lack of experience has popped up from time to time. Yoder has complained about the lack of debates despite having failed to debate any Democratic opponent during his time in Congress.

It probably won’t matter. Call it the Glickman Maxim: When the president is the issue, nothing else seems important, and a wave election is possible. Yoder’s candidacy is in serious jeopardy as a result.

Dave Helling

Dave Helling has reported on politics and government in the Midwest for more than 40 years. He now writes editorials and columns for The Star.

Democrat Sharice Davids and Kansas 3rd District incumbent Kevin Yoder, a Republican, square off on health care, which is center stage in their race.