U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder has got to be more than a bit torn about the situation he now finds himself in.
By that, I don’t mean I see any real threat to his chances of being re-elected to his fifth term as the congressman from Kansas’ 3rd District. What Yoder may be conflicted about is the pressure to transform into the kind of Republican he thinks he needs to be to keep forging ahead.
Yoder has blazed a trail for himself from the time he was elected student body president at the University of Kansas in the late ‘90s He was a liberal back then. After law school, Yoder was elected as a state representative. He embraced the advice of his mentor, then-state Sen. David Adkins of Leawood. Adkins was one of the most liberal Republicans in the Legislature, and he was widely seen as a rising star, perhaps governor material. The political future of Adkins came to a screeching halt in the 2002 Republican primary when he ran for Kansas attorney general and lost in a major upset to right-wing Republican Phill Kline, also a state legislator from Johnson County.
Yoder must have felt a tectonic shift in the Republican Party. Not only did Adkins’ defeat spell change, the rumblings of the tea party had become a loud roar. Angry, reactionary conservatives were sweeping the nation, including Kansas. Yoder could see the handwriting on the wall. By the time Yoder decided to run for Congress in 2010, the young politician had already shifted way to the right. Yoder had become a full-fledged conservative, railing against such liberal causes as entitlements.
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That staunch conservative persona not only won Yoder a ticket to Washington as a congressman. But he also was soon recognized by the conservative Republican congressional leadership as a young man with a bright future. He was appointed to become the youngest member of the highly influential House Appropriations Committee, where decisions are made about how money should be spent. Yoder’s trajectory was headed straight up.
This is where the story takes a turn, though. Once Donald Trump was elected president, Yoder, now 42, had to do a total makeover once again, this time morphing from a regular conservative to a Trump conservative, melding with the president, who has totally dominated the Republican Party since his election.
The new Trump rules are simple. To move ahead, you, as a highly-ranked Republican, have to line up with Trump always. Any hint of less than 100 percent loyalty to Trump results in the president’s wrath. And any deviation could certainly stunt future political ambitions.
Indeed, Yoder starting mouthing Trump’s positions almost immediately. Yoder stated, for example, that separating migrant children from adults was necessary to keep them safe from traffickers and drug cartels, which was the Trump administration’s official line.
Yoder changed his tune after an uproar from his constituents. But the point is, Yoder extolled the virtues of a horrendous policy in order to be a good team player. His loyalty to Trump was recently rewarded with a lofty appointment to the chairmanship of the powerful Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee.
I have known Yoder for many years, and I believe he agrees with the overwhelming number of experts who have concluded that a 2,000-mile border wall separating Mexico from the United States is totally impractical, though he cannot say so publicly. Yoder surely knows that the wall cannot physically be built, due to the challenges posed by the terrain and other physical obstacles. But still he led the way to secure $5 billion for 200 miles of the border wall. Trump was so delighted with Yoder, he publicly tweeted to the Kansas congressman a big thanks and then effusively endorsed his re-election bid.
Yoder, once a liberal, then a conservative, is now a full-blown loyal Trumpite. It is possible, though unlikely, that he has become a true believer in Trump’s policies, which would be quite different from the Kevin Yoder I have known. More likely, Yoder is exhibiting the required fervor for Trump, which will help ensure that the upward trajectory of Kevin Yoder’s political career not only continues, but perhaps even accelerates. Clearly, this is a political success story. But, having witnessed all the compromises along the way, I do not find it a particularly happy story.