Steve Rose

What does a winning strategy for a Democratic candidate in Kevin Yoder’s district look like?


How might House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders figure into the race for Kansas’ 3rd District in Congress?
How might House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders figure into the race for Kansas’ 3rd District in Congress? AP

Suppose you are a Democratic strategist hired by one of the seven Democratic candidates vying for the Kansas 3rd Congressional District seat occupied by four-term Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder. Your mission today is to craft the messages in the playbook that will lead you to victory in the August Democratic primary election and then the general election in November.

It might be tempting to take a page directly out of the recent congressional election in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Conor Lamb won in a huge upset in a suburban district that Donald Trump had carried by 20 points. Lamb’s playbook was basically to present himself as an almost-Republican Democrat. He was a Second Amendment guy who ran commercials showing him with a machine gun. As a Catholic, he said he was pro-life, although he also said he wouldn’t dictate to others what to do about abortion.

He never bad-mouthed Trump, but he ran lots of commercials saying emphatically that he did not support Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and would vote against her continuing in that leadership role. Lamb said he thought a minimum wage of $15 per hour was too high. With that agenda, a Republican on the fence could easily pull the lever for Lamb, and many did.

Those could be winning messages in the 3rd District as well — in a general election. Longtime Democratic 3rd District Congressman Dennis Moore proved a very moderate Democrat could prevail in the district that includes mostly Johnson and Wyandotte counties and is usually a shoo-in for Republicans. Moore was part of the moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats, just as Lamb is likely to be.

But remember, Lamb did not have a Democratic primary contest, so he could say almost anything. If he alienated some Democrats, they voted for him anyway. But in a seven-way primary race in the 3rd District, an almost-Republican Democrat would likely be eliminated. He or she would never make it to the championship because the nominating process would vanquish any Democrat that far to the right.

If I were that Democratic strategist, I would advise that to win the primary, you would have to lean liberal because the passionate Democrats tend to get excited about those views, and they would sweep you to primary victory. That was Bernie Sanders’ message: single-payer health care for all; free college education for those who cannot afford it; a much higher minimum wage, at least $15 per hour; a strong pro-choice position; a ban on all assault weapons; and support for Pelosi. Those issues will rally the troops. Anything less, and you might find yourself in the dust-bin of congressional wannabes.

But what happens the day after the primary, when suddenly you have to appeal to enough moderate Republicans and independents to beat Yoder?

Overnight, you must tone down the messages from the primary. Those liberal positions must fade into the background, and in their place, you must fill the airwaves, consistently hammering away at the scary Yoder-Trump team. They are, in your messaging, one person. Yoder’s voting record is totally Trump. Trump is the devil incarnate. You beat those drums as loudly and as often as humanly possible.

Yoder, of course, will pound your liberal views and your support of the unpopular Pelosi, the Democrat’s Achilles’ heel, who likely would become Speaker of the House if her party takes over the House of Representatives. That’s assuming Pelosi does not step down before November, which might happen if she is convinced her unpopularity could sink the ship, which it just might.

The bottom line is, do enough Republican and independent voters in the 3rd District dislike Donald Trump (aka Kevin Yoder) so much that they could vote for a liberal Democrat whose views have somewhat moderated since the primary?

As your Democratic strategist, I would have to respond with a hearty yes. Of course, you just paid me a fortune to come to that conclusion.