Democrats Take Different Tacks In Johnson And Wyandotte Counties As They Try To Win The Kansas 3rd
Brooklynne Mosley doesn’t like the term “blue wave.”
The Air Force veteran walked into the Kansas Democrats’ Wyandotte County field office wearing a T-shirt bearing the face of U.S. Senate candidate and liberal darling from Texas, Beto O’Rourke, and passing out buttons that read “throw shade, then vote.”
Mosley talks optimistically about Democrats’ chances to flip U.S. House seats and governors’ mansions nationwide, and particularly in Kansas.
But she says “blue wave” makes Democratic wins sound inevitable, like the next full moon.
It’ll take effort. She points to the pivotal 2016 election, when Democrats and moderate Republicans swept into the Kansas Legislature to roll back then-Gov.Sam Brownback’s tax cuts and press for Medicaid expansion.
“What’s happening right now, on the ground, is not an accident,” she said. “We are in the process of building off that (2016) momentum.”
Still, a blue wave is hard to escape in discussions about the 2018 midterms — especially in conversations about the Kansas 3rd Congressional District.
Republican Kevin Yoder is trying to hang onto that seat in the face of a challenge from Democrat Sharice Davids. Flipping the 3rd will come down to how effectively Democrats can employ two different strategies — getting voters to the polls who usually don’t bother in non-presidential years, and convincing Republican voters to cross party lines.
Consisting mostly of Wyandotte and Johnson counties, with a chunk of Miami County filling in its southern edge, the district went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election by a single point — while re-electing a Republican to Congress.
So Yoder has been reluctant to tie himself to President Donald Trump the way some fellow Kansas Republicans have. Secretary of State Kris Kobach and 2nd District candidate Steve Watkins eagerly embrace the polarizing president.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has pulled funding from Yoder’s race. That could be a sign that GOP brass thinks Yoder is doomed.
Mosley and other Democratic organizers are working on two fronts to help Davids.
Getting out the Wyandotte County vote
In Wyandotte County, it’s a turnout game.
The county is a reliable Democratic stronghold in a Republican state. It has lots of Democrats registered to vote, but few who bother to cast ballots. Only 35 percent showed up the last time Yoder was on the ballot in a midterm year.
If Democrats can get more people to Wyandotte County polls, those voters could decide turn congressional race — and maybe some statewide contests.
They could get a prod from turnout projects such as the left-leaning MainStream Coalition’s Voter to Voter program. It aims to rally 1,000 Kansas voters to each get 10 of their friends to the polls.
Lindsay Behgam, who’s been traveling around talking to potential voters in Wyandotte and Johnson counties, calls it a “Ponzi scheme with a happy ending, you know, we all get better democracy at the end.”
Some numbers look promising for Democrats — 2,300 more voters have registered in the county since the August primary. That primary also saw an uptick in turnout over 2016. That’s significant because voters are more apt to cast a ballot in presidential election years.
Crossing party lines in Johnson County
Neighboring Johnson County, the other half of the 3rd District, has seen a greater explosion in voter registration. Johnson County Elections Commissioner Ronnie Metsker said the county has been setting all-time voter registration records every day since early August.
It’s also seen an increase in people updating their registration — changing addresses, switching party affiliations, and requesting advance mail-in ballots.
Higher registration and turnout in Johnson County isn’t automatically good for Democrats like it is in Wyandotte County. Johnson County voters make a good showing in non-presidential election years, and tend to vote more Republican.
But this year, its voters are bucking the trend, or seem to be. Registration is up by 7,000 voters since August. But the county has nearly 10,000 more Democrats.
That reflects the goal of Democrats’ Johnson County strategy, which hinges less on turning out voters and more on turning them Democratic.
Dave Myres, head of the Johnson County Republicans, said his party has always worked a two-pronged approach of persuasion and turnout. In an email, he described 3rd District voters as highly educated and tuned in to the political process. He said the party is focusing attention on gains made under Republican control — economic successes, more military spending, a harder line on immigration.
“We treat every election like it is neck-and-neck, so our efforts haven’t materially changed,” he said in the email.
He did say Republican efforts are more robust in Johnson County than in Wyandotte, because Johnson has more registered voters.
Kansas GOP director Jim Joice declined to go into detail about the party’s 3rd District strategy until after Election Day.
Door-to-door, voter to voter
On a Saturday in early October when Trump stumped for Republicans in Topeka, Daniel Hodes and his son Beckett went door-knocking in Overland Park.
The father and son made their canvassing debut by going to the homes of voters the Kansas Democrats had identified as persuadable — maybe unaffiliated, or only intermittently Republican, or newly registered voters.
“That was a registered Republican, but she told me she’s voting Democrat,” Hodes said, gesturing back at a house where he’d spoken to an elderly woman with a dog. “I hope she does.”
It helps that the 3rd District’s Democratic candidate checks a lot of progressive boxes. Davids is a female candidate in a year that’s been deemed a possible second “Year of the Woman,” echoing the 1992 election that swept 28 women into Congress for the first time. She’s a liberal candidate following the 2016 presidential election that saw surprising energy behind socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. And, if elected, she’d be one of the first Native American congresswomen.
But Yoder is well-known across the district that’s handily elected a Republican to Congress the past four cycles.
It’s hard to measure enthusiasm for a candidate, and even harder to tell if that will translate into actual votes on Election Day. But polls have Davids leading Yoder by as many as 9 percentage points.
Turnout in the primaries was also higher than the most recent presidential primary, which is far more likely to attract voters than a midterm. Twenty-five percent of registered voters in Wyandotte County and 30 percent in Johnson County cast a primary ballot this August, pushing up turnout in both counties some 10 percentage points over the 2014 primary.
For a group of volunteers preparing canvassing materials at the Johnson County Democrats headquarters, Davids’ candidacy was reason for optimism.
“Sharice is generating huge buzz — huge,” said Scott Roby as he put 3rd District campaign flyers and brochures into plastic bags for canvassers to take out. “Even Republicans and independents you talk to, she’s the one they single out on the ballot and say, ‘I like her.’”
Mary-Louise Poquette, a Davids organizer who was highlighting the name of Kansas House candidate Laura Smith-Everett on a stack of brochures for Roby, agreed.
“We have had an astounding number of Republicans who have said ‘we’re going your way this year,’” she said.
But organizers also have to contend with people who are interested in the issues, but don’t see much point in voting.
Ariadne Varela, a student at Donnelly College on the Wyandotte side of the district, went to one of Lindsay Behgam’s MainStream voter talks, but didn’t plan to cast a ballot this year.
She said she wants to see better outcomes for Wyandotte County in a couple ways — “health and wealth” — but didn’t think her vote would matter.
“I honestly have never thought about voting,” she said. “I’m really not into political [sic] and Democrats and stuff like that.”
This story has been corrected to indicate that MainStream’s effort to encourage voting is non-partisan.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for 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 her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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