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How Left Is Too Left? Kansas Democrats Duke It Out in Must-Win District

Kevin Yoder’s seat is a Democratic target this year

Lawyer Brent Welder, center, rallies with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Kansas City on Friday. (Courtesy Brent Welder for Congress)
Lawyer Brent Welder, center, rallies with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Kansas City on Friday. (Courtesy Brent Welder for Congress)

Kansas’ 3rd District was recently thrust into the national spotlight as the latest battleground for the soul of the Democratic Party. While local Democrats are divided over the best strategy for the general election, they agree on one thing: It’s a district they have to win to take back the House.

“This is a good example of very ripe territory for Democrats,” said one Democratic operative involved in the race. “And if Democrats are not winning here in November, that’s a very bad sign.”

The 3rd is one of two dozen Republican-held seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, backing her by 1 point. Before Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder won the seat in 2010, voters here sent moderate Democrat Dennis Moore to Congress for 12 years. 

Like other Democratic primaries nationwide, the contest in the Kansas City metropolitan area has centered on what kind of candidate can best defeat the GOP incumbent, in this case Yoder.

Ahead of the Aug. 7 primary, the six Democrats running are largely aligned on ideology, but differ in style and rhetoric, igniting a familiar debate over whether moderate candidates or bold liberals make better challengers. Candidates have also differed on tactics, with some bringing in national figures and getting help from outside groups, and others keeping the focus local. 

But with no apparent front-runner, it’s anyone’s guess who will face Yoder in the fall.

Watch: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising

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A crowded field

Labor lawyer Brent Welder has staked out his position as the unapologetic progressive in the race. He drew national headlines Friday when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley in a New York primary last month, rallied with him and his supporters in Kansas City. 

Welder, who was an organizer for Sanders and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, told the crowds that populism was “alive and well” in Kansas.

He argued that Democrats could win back working-class voters who abandoned the party by nominating candidates “who articulate bold, progressive economic plans to truly help working families.”

Welder’s team believes his ideological base as one of the candidates furthest to the left will help him win the primary. He also has a geographic base in Kansas City in Wyandotte County, where his campaign is headquartered. Wyandotte is more diverse, and also one of the poorest counties in the state. Most of the 3rd District votes come from Johnson County, the wealthiest in the state. 

Welder said he offers a stark contrast to Yoder. He supports a single-payer health care system and a $15 minimum wage, and refuses corporate PAC money. The latter earned him the backing of End Citizens United, a group that supports a campaign finance overhaul. 

The two other top candidates in the race, according to multiple party operatives, are lawyer and former professional MMA fighter Sharice Davids and high school teacher Tom Niermann.

Davids said she would vote for a single-payer system if elected, but thinks that’s a few election cycles away. Niermann is open to all options that lead to universal health care, but more immediately, he wants to address rising health care costs, which he believes will need to be done in a bipartisan way. 

Niermann has been referred to as one of the more moderate candidates in the race, but his campaign has pushed back on that narrative.

“I think a lot of people are trying to put labels on Tom that just don’t apply,” Niermann campaign manager Zach Helder said. “He is a teacher who cares deeply about the issues facing our community because he’s experienced them himself.”

Niermann has emphasized local endorsements, including from Republican state Sen. Barbara Bollier, and his connections to the community as a longtime teacher. He often discusses education, a hot-button issue in Kansas amid unpopular spending cuts, and is launching a second television ad focused on education this week. 

Davids said voters in the district want a candidate who can get things done in Congress, adding, “sometimes that means compromising.” She said the main dividing lines between the candidates are their backgrounds and experience. 

All three are on the airwaves, with Niermann and Welder airing their own campaign ads, and EMILY’s List up with one for Davids. If elected, she would be the first Native American congresswoman and one of the few openly gay women in Congress.

The three will soon be joined on the airwaves by banker Sylvia Williams, who is launching an ad later this week. One Democratic operative described Williams as a “wild card” with the ability to spend her own money on the race. 

Williams’ campaign manager Kelly Kultala, a former state senator who lost to Yoder in 2014, said voters in the district are “down to earth,” “pragmatic” and “family-oriented,” and they’ll be drawn to Williams. The campaign is also heavily targeting female primary voters with mail pieces. 

The two other candidates in the race include 2016 nominee Jay Sidie and Mike McCamon, who had been advising former 3rd District candidate Andrea Ramsey’s campaign. A onetime front-runner, Ramsey dropped out of the race last year amid sexual harassment allegations, and backed Welder

Strategic divide 

Democrats involved and observing the race described Welder and Davids as likely to appeal to more liberal voters, while Niermann and Williams could appeal to more moderate voters who believe they have the best chance against Yoder. 

But the incumbent may not be that easy to dislodge. Republicans are confident he has effectively distanced himself from President Donald Trump on issues such as trade and immigration. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican.

And Yoder is already engaging in the race, capitalizing on the national attention from last week’s rally with Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. 

His campaign launched a Facebook ad over the weekend showing Welder’s picture next to the two progressive figures, asking people to sign a petition “if you agree they’re too extreme for KS-3.”

Sanders did win the Kansas Democratic caucuses in his 2016 presidential bid, taking 62 percent of the 3rd District vote, according to The New York Times.

Despite that, former Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon, who supported Clinton, did not believe a Sanders-style candidate would succeed in the general election in the 3rd District.

“There’s no question that it resonates,” she said of the senator’s socialist message. But there aren’t enough Democrats to carry the district alone, the onetime Topeka mayor pointed out.

“The only way that we win is if we have moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters joining with us … and the Bernie Sanders message doesn’t cross over to that group,” she said.

Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor who briefly worked for former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, wasn’t so sure. He noted that the energy in the Democratic Party coming from its left flank could change the general election dynamics.

Still, the debate over Democratic tactics and general election strategy is a new one for primary voters in the 3rd District. Veteran Democrats like Wagnon and Kultala said this was the most competitive party primary for the seat in recent memory. 

“There’s never been a race like this,” Loomis said. “There’s kind of a fog of war here — that everyone’s on the ground, everyone’s working. But I don’t think anybody has a sense of what actually is going on.”

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