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Without Heavyweight, GOP Could Lose Kansas 2nd Congressional District

Crysta Henthorne
Kansas News Service
Democrat Paul Davis awaits the winner among seven GOP primary contenders: (top row, left to right) Steve Fitzgerald, Kevin Jones, Dennis Pyle, Caryn Tyson, (bottom row) Vernon Fields, Doug Mays, and Steve Watkins.

The field of Republicans running in Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District is large, but some party leaders worry, not strong enough to keep the seat from falling into Democratic hands for the first time since 2006.

Seven Republicans are competing for the opportunity to face the lone Democrat in the race, Paul Davis, in the November general election. None has the name recognition of Davis, a former minority leader in the Kansas House who in 2014 nearly unseated former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Likewise, none can match Davis’ more than $1 million in campaign contributions. In fact, several Republican contenders — Kansas senators Steve Fitzgerald and Caryn Tyson, and political newcomer Steve Watkins — have made personal loans of $150,000 or more to their campaigns to push their fundraising totals into respectable territory.

Republican Party leaders’ unease about the 2nd District race turned to alarm recently when trackers at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and Real Clear Politics moved the race from a “likely (Republican) win” into the “toss up” column on their prediction boards.

"They just felt like none of the (other) candidates could win."

That, said former Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays, triggered calls from state and national party leaders urging him to get into the race.

“They just felt like none of the (other) candidates could win,” Mays said. “And if people, whether it’s justified or not, believe you can’t win, they don’t contribute to your campaign.”

So Mays, who has been out of elective politics since 2006, jumped in at virtually the last minute, announcing his candidacy just weeks before the June 1 filing deadline.

Even with the late addition of Mays, there is “no obvious front runner” in the GOP field, said University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller, largely because potential headliners such as Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner decided to sit out the race.

From a strictly political standpoint, Miller said, that makes sense given that Democrats running in demographically similar districts across the country have outperformed expectations in recent special elections.

“If you’re a strategic candidate who doesn’t want to be branded a loser, you might sit out a tougher year like 2018 and run instead in one or two cycles if the political environment is more favorable,” Miller said.

The adverse political climate is a motivator for Mays. He said he’s running because he believes it’s critical that Republicans maintain control of Congress and support President Trump’s economic policies.

“The specter of Nancy Pelosi being back in the speaker’s office and putting an absolute halt to everything this administration and the Republican Party wants,” Mays said, “is something I just can’t bear.”

Covering roughly the eastern third of the state between the Nebraska and Oklahoma borders, the 2nd District has been reliably red for the past decade. Keeping the seat that outgoing Republican Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins has held since defeating one-term Democrat Nancy Boyda in 2008 is a priority for all of the GOP contenders.

Fitzgerald, the state senator from Leavenworth, said he is running to prevent “Bernie and Hillary’s Democrats” from resuming “their death march to socialism.”

Watkins, an engineer from Topeka who’s touting his U.S. Army experience and outsider status, also speaks with urgency about keeping the “liberal elites” from regaining control of Congress and thwarting Trump’s agenda.

During a recent appearance on Wichita talk radio station KQAM, Watkins said the Trump administration has made progress “on so many fronts.” Progress that he doesn’t want to see interrupted.

“I love the simplified tax code,” he said. “I love the deregulation that I’ve seen. I love the judicial appointments.”

Trump carried the 2nd District in the 2016 presidential election by 18 points and Republicans are running on the assumption that a majority of voters still support him.

GOP operatives downplay the fact that Davis also won the district in his 2014 bid for governor. That race, they say, was a referendum on Brownback, who at the time ranked among the least popular governor’s in the nation.

Davis won’t have that kind of advantage as a congressional candidate, said Michael Byerly, a spokesperson for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that has nonetheless reserved $1.25 million in television ad time to help whichever Republican wins the 2nd District primary.

“Paul Davis is an out of touch liberal who despite his claims would support Nancy Pelosi and her agenda,” Byerly said.

In an effort to appeal to Independents and moderate Republicans, Davis has pledged to work across the aisle if elected and has said he wouldn’t support the divisive Pelosi for a leadership position.

"Republicans here will be pressed harder than they have been in over a decade."

While Republicans are in “serious jeopardy” of losing the 2nd District seat, Miller said, their registration advantage makes the race anything but a “slam dunk” for Davis and the Democrats.

“Republicans here will be pressed harder than they have been in over a decade,” he said, “but all signs still point towards a competitive general election, no matter who the Republican nominee is.”

That could be Mays, Fitzgerald, Tyson or Watkins, or another local politician. The GOP field also includes Kansas Sen. Dennis Pyle, Kansas Rep. Kevin Jones, and Basehor City Council member Vernon Fields.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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