A Johnson County Democrat hopes to flip one of the few competitive Kansas House districts
Kansas’ 39th House District is predominantly white and for decades has elected Republicans. But new district borders and changing demographics have a first-time, African American candidate hopeful about her chances.
Democrat Vanessa Vaughn West spends almost every weeknight after work knocking on doors and getting to know her neighbors in her campaign to represent Kansas’ 39th House District.
Whenever she has time away from family or work, she walks around talking to anybody who comes to their door, trying to connect with the community. She says not everybody is willing to talk but a few good conversations can be important in getting a sense of what issues district residents are focused on.
Vaughn West, an African American, stresses the importance of community involvement, which she says dates back to her time in Girl Scouts, then volunteer work during college. She’s worked with El Centro in Kansas City helping immigrants to acclimate and as a community relations manager for the City of Olathe, connecting businesses and schools to local government resources.
This is her first shot at elected office.
“I knew that this was an opportunity and there was a need here for an alternative perspective, an alternative voice,” Vaughn West says.
A changing district
Vaughn West is running in a district that, according to the Kansas Legislature's website, is made up of more than 23,000 people, most of whom are white. Even though the area is less diverse than the rest of the state, political sentiment there may be shifting and that makes the first-time candidate optimistic about her chances.
In 2012, Republican candidates in state and federal races won District 39 comfortably, often amassing at least 60% of the vote and winning by double-digit percentage points. But in 2018 and 2020, incumbent Owen Donohoe won with less than 55% of the vote. And in the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump won the district by only 2 percentage points
“Right now, I often say that our district is a rosy pink with optimism,” Vaughn West says. “We have a lot of newness — new ideas, new families. Folks who have come from different areas to strengthen our community.”
With redistricting, the Johnson County cities of Bonner Springs, Shawnee, and Lake Quivira are now part of the district, which now stretches from Quivira and Pflumm roads on the east to the Kansas River on the north and west and as far south as Shawnee Mission Parkway.
University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller says when the Legislature gerrymandered the new House maps, they left the 39th District as one of the few remaining competitive areas.
“I think that for Democrats to pick up this district, they really need a candidate who is running an aggressive grassroots campaign that means aggressive door-knocking,” Miller says. “And they also have to have a compelling negative message about the Republican incumbent.”
Although Miller says this is a district to watch over the next decade, he expects Republican candidates in pink districts, such as the 39th, to have the edge this year.
Clear cut differences
Unlike Vaughn West, Donohoe, the incumbent, is a political veteran. Before his reelection in 2018, he served in the Kansas House from 2007 to 2012. In 2022, he missed 25% of the votes, among the worst attendance records in the House.
Donohoe did not respond to a request for comment on that or his policy priorities. But at a recent community forum hosted by the Shawnee Mission Post, he said his priorities include increased funding for people with intellectual developmental disabilities.
“When you’re setting a budget, the first dollars should go to these people,” Donohoe said at the forum. “The first dollars should go to those that are the most incapable of taking care of themselves.”
Vaughn West agrees but differs with him on just about everything else.
Donohoe, for example, was one of seven legislators in 2019 to sponsor a bill calling same-sex marriage a ‘parody.’ During a speech on the House floor, he said it was the duty of government to uphold the “rules of nature.” He said those rules led him to believe that same-sex marriage and transgender athletes are inherently wrong.
He backed a failed amendment that would have rid the state Constitution of the right to an abortion. At the forum, he said he respected the voters' decision but was concerned about possible lawsuits to get rid of abortion regulations.
“The only concern that I have is that we keep it regulated and who it is to say there's not a need for more laws,” Donohoe said. “We don't know all the things that are going to transpire.”
There are more than 20 laws on the books regulating abortion in Kansas. Vaughn West says that's more than enough.
Unlike Donohoe, she also supports same-sex marriage and says inclusivity is a pillar of her platform. She says another priority is to expand Medicaid.
That’s easier said than done. Both chambers of the Legislature currently boast a Republican supermajority, meaning conservative lawmakers control the policy agenda. Legislation proposed by Democrats is often effectively dead on arrival.
But Vaughn West is hopeful her canvassing efforts generate ideas that can defy those odds and bring tangible benefits to the district.
“What has been kind of my throughline throughout this is an approach of collaboration and connection,” Vaughn West says. “I'm really working to meet the people, understand their needs and goals and to be able to reflect and represent those in Topeka.”