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Sharice Davids’ secret to winning over swing voters? ‘It’s kind of like MMA’

Kansas Democrat says, ‘You just got to show up every day’

Rep. Sharice Davids, seen here in December, says being in Congress is “not what it looks like on TV.”
Rep. Sharice Davids, seen here in December, says being in Congress is “not what it looks like on TV.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

If you know only one thing about Rep. Sharice Davids, it might be that she was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Or perhaps that she’s one of the few open lesbians in the House, or something about her brief career as a professional mixed martial arts fighter before politics — another first. 

But Davids says she doesn’t think about any of that on most days, when she’s more focused on the issues in front of her. For the self-described “infrastructure nerd” who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that means more time thinking about rail hubs than representational honors. 

Davids has also been a role model for swing-district Democrats, improving on her margin of victory in 2022 despite redrawn maps in Kansas that made her district more Republican-leaning. On that, she says the lesson is straightforward: Meet with voters, no matter what. “It’s kind of like MMA,” she said. “You just got to show up every day, even if you’re gonna get punched in the face.”

Davids sat down with Roll Call last month in her office, shortly after she ate a presumably bland breakfast. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: You were one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, and one of the first openly lesbian women too. What is that like for you?

A: Day to day, it’s not at the top of my mind or anything. It’s usually those times when I have a chance to stop and think. Or sometimes, I’ll end up having conversations with people, and they’ll say something where I come in that moment to feel … not pressure, but almost like if you stare into the sky for too long, and you can see the stars, depending on where you’re at. You realize how vast everything is. It feels so much bigger than me.

Q: What do people say to you that brings up that feeling?

A: Most days, I’m just going from one meeting to the next, and I’m trying to be present in each. But then someone will say how they felt when Deb Haaland and I got elected. Or the first time they realized, “Oh, I guess I never thought about seeing someone like myself, or feeling represented by a Native person who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community.” That’s when I’m like, “Wow.” 

It’s just being in awe of the impact that humans can have on each other. Not necessarily me, specifically, because in some ways, it doesn’t feel like me. It wasn’t just me that got here — it’s a whole community of people and a whole team of people.

Q: You’re a self-described infrastructure nerd. Democrats spent the summer touting their accomplishments, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the polls suggest that voters are kind of indifferent at best. Was that your experience as well?

A: One of the reasons I’ve been able to connect with people is because we just have a lot of infrastructure in the Kansas City metro area. We have the second-largest rail hub in the country, we’ve got some of the largest intermodal hubs, we’ve got major intersecting highways, we’re right smack dab in the middle of the country.

We also have a strong local press corps in the Kansas City metro area, and I may be biased, but I feel like a lot of people at home have a good sense of what’s going on — both the good stuff and the frustrating stuff. Folks are concerned about what we’re going to do to address the supply chain issues, which I hear about fairly regularly. And we also have a lot of people who are very excited about not just the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science bill, because of the way those things are going to work together. 

Granted, people might not say, “Oh, the CHIPS and Science Act.” They might say, “I know we’re trying to boost domestic manufacturing” — and so maybe the names of the bills aren’t exactly what people are thinking about. 

So, this summer when I was home, it was touting some of the major wins that we had, but also figuring out how we’re going to implement these major pieces of legislation. In the Kansas 3rd, we have a very large battery manufacturing plant with the Panasonic plant coming in. The deal was done before CHIPS and Science was passed, but the follow-on effects of [that law] and the Inflation Reduction Act together are really having a noticeable impact in our area in terms of economic development. 

Q: Redistricting made your district a little more friendly for Republicans in 2022. But you still won, and even improved on your margin over the same opponent you’d faced in the previous election. What lessons can other Democrats take from that?

A: Yeah, we made it through redistricting. I think our outreach and communication with folks in the district is a huge part of it. I mean, I just show up everywhere. If people invite me to stuff in Kansas, I try to be there. And that’s regardless of what part of the district it’s in or whether people voted for me. 

People can tell I’m here to do the work. The redistricting happened, and I got on the Agriculture Committee, because I know there are more farmers and producers and people who are directly working in the ag sector, which is the biggest sector in Kansas. Before the redistricting, it wasn’t as large a presence in the 3rd District as it is now. 

And then also, I can only control what I can control. We don’t know what the political environment’s ever gonna look like, so maybe there’s an element of consistency in terms of me showing up — our communications, our offices, our constituent services that we do.

It’s kind of like MMA. You just got to show up every day, even if you’re gonna get punched in the face. No one’s punching me in the face, but you know what I mean. Metaphorically.

Q: What’s one thing you’ve learned about Congress, now that you’re in your third term?

A: My experience here is not what it looks like on TV. Like, Dusty Johnson and I have worked together on some different bills. We sit on Ag and Transportation and Infrastructure together. And Tracey Mann and I, he’s in the Kansas delegation — there are times that Republicans and Democrats are actively seeking out ways to work together. Most people don’t get to see that. 

We’re all just humans, people in Congress. I mean, sure, there might be some quirky things about us, but we’re people who are trying to serve our communities. And when people come out here, they get to see that Congress is an institution that’s existed for a long time, but it’s filled with humans. 

Quick hits

Last book you read? “The Actual Star” by Monica Byrne. 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? I don’t think so. 

Your least popular opinion? I don’t like condiments or flavor. I mean, I eat to not die. 

One thing your friends know about you that your constituents don’t? Probably my weird food stuff. You can tell how well somebody knows me by how much they know about my food habits. They know I can find something off the kids’ menu at most places. 

Best friend in Congress across the aisle? Dusty Johnson. We’ve done a few [bills] together, and we joke around about stuff together. 

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