WASHINGTON – Kansas isn’t known as a swing state.
Republicans have a lock on all six statewide elected offices, from governor to insurance commissioner. The state has an all-GOP congressional delegation. And President Donald Trump carried Kansas by more than 20 points in 2016.
But in 2018, Democrats hope to turn this ruby-red state at least a little bit blue – and political experts say that’s not far-fetched. Kansas voters could play a pivotal role in determining which party controls the U.S. House come November.
Next week’s primaries in two closely watched House races will go a long way toward clarifying just how competitive Kansas Democrats will be this fall.
The contests spotlight key dynamics driving the 2018 election cycle: the rash of Republican retirements, which have created pickup opportunities for Democrats; the bevy of women candidates, often political neophytes, mounting formidable federal bids; and the tussle between ultraliberals and moderates over the future of the Democratic Party.
The races in the Sunflower State are among a slew of primaries in four states Tuesday. Missouri, Michigan and Washington also host spirited gubernatorial, Senate and congressional races that will shape the general election landscape.
Here’s our take on the races to watch in Kansas and beyond:
Kansas 2nd Congressional District
Rep. Lynn Jenkins is one of 42 House Republicans not running for re-election this year. That record-high number is a “big reason” Democrats have a chance at winning control of the House, says Dave Wasserman, who analyzes congressional races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
This eastern Kansas district would not be competitive if Jenkins had decided to stay on. Democrats got lucky when Paul Davis, a former state House minority leader, jumped into the contest and cleared the field. He has carried the district before, when he unsuccessfully ran for governor against Republican Sam Brownback in 2014.
“It’s almost like he’s an incumbent,” Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, says of Davis. “He has no competition. He’s very well known. He’s got $1.5 million (in his campaign account).”
On the GOP side, the primary is a seven-way free-for-all. Some see Army veteran Steve Watkins as the strongest candidate. He served in Afghanistan and is running as an anti-establishment figure.
“Steve is not a lawyer or politician,” his campaign biography boasts. “He’s a leader, family man, conservative, and patriot.”
As Wasserman notes in an analysis of the race, Watkins has attracted some controversy. His father set up a super PAC devoted to electing his son. And Watkins reportedly spoke with Democrats last year about a political run – although he denies he ever considered running as a Democrat.
He faces a squad of former state lawmakers, none of whom has raised significant money or settled on a breakout message.
Loomis says that if Republicans don’t nominate a strong contender, it will make the general election even more competitive. “That’s a toss-up, at worst, for Democrats” in the fall, he predicts.
Kansas 3rd Congressional District
In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried this district by 1 percentage point – making incumbent GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder a top Democratic target in this election. First elected in 2010, Yoder narrowly won his last race with 51.3 percent.
Democrats face a five-way primary in a contest that has highlighted the party’s divisions. On the left flank is Brent Welder, a union organizer turned labor lawyer. He’s running on a populist platform that includes expanding Medicare, raising taxes on “giant corporations and billionaires” and banning assault weapons.
“The only way we’re going to win a district like this is by giving voters a real choice,” says Shawn Borich, Welder’s campaign manager.
Welder attracted national attention when he snagged endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic socialist who shocked the political world in June by unseating 10-term New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a primary. The liberal pair held a rally for Welder last weekend that drew a crowd of 2,000, according to The Kansas City Star.
Welder faces questions about whether that super-liberal message will sell in Kansas in a general election. He also faces a set of strong challengers, starting with Sharice Davids, a lesbian and Native American with a compelling personal biography.
“I’ve had to fight my whole life because of who I am, who I love and where I started,” Davids says in a video that highlights her training as a mixed martial arts fighter. A Cornell-educated lawyer, Davids touts herself as a progressive candidate.
Vying for the moderate mantle is Tom Niermann, a former school teacher who has focused on health care and gun safety.
“People would give him the best chance of winning in the general election,” Loomis says. “Whether he prevails in a high-energy primary election, I don’t know.”
Whichever candidate emerges as the nominee after Tuesday’s primary will face a tough campaign in Yoder. He has come under fire for his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and in favor of the GOP’s sweeping tax cut. Trump praised Yoder after the congressman pushed to include $5 billion for the president’s border wall in a spending bill.
Washington’s 8th Congressional District
Republican Rep. Dave Reichert made this seat a toss-up the instant he decided not to run for an eighth term. Democrats had salivated over the seat for years but could never beat the popular former sheriff.
Three leading contenders vie for the Democratic nomination Tuesday. All of them are political newcomers, and the winner is likely to face Dino Rossi, a former state senator and real estate developer.
In the Democratic race, political handicappers give a slight edge to Kim Schrier, a pediatrician who raised the most money – about $1.5 million through June – thanks in part to an endorsement from EMILY’s List, which promotes female candidates who support abortion rights. Schrier made health care the central issue in her campaign, saying the House GOP bill to repeal Obamacare made her decide to run for Congress. She bills herself as a mom and a doctor, not a “slick politician.”
The other Democratic candidates include Jason Rittereiser, a former prosecutor, and Shannon Hader, who worked on global health issues in the Obama administration.
The race turns more on a question of which candidate is more electable in the fall than on any differences on the issues.
“That’s the question asked at every candidate forum, every meet and greet and every event where political types gather,” reporter Rich Smith wrote in The Stranger, an alternative biweekly newspaper in Seattle.
Rossi is likely to be formidable. He narrowly lost two statewide races, for governor in 2008 and Senate in 2010, and carried the 8th District both times.
Travis N. Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University, says he expects that Democrats will unite quickly around the winner of Tuesday’s primary and that national attention and money will flood in as they pivot to the general election.
“It will remain a tight competitive race, regardless of who the nominee is. The fundamentals are there,” Ridout says.
Michigan’s 13th Congressional District
Michigan’s 13th Congressional District is one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic seats in the country, so the Democratic primary Aug. 7 will almost certainly determine the winner in November.
Rep. John Conyers has represented the Detroit-area district, in its various incarnations, for 52 years. He was forced to resign last year amid a #MeToo movement scandal after being accused of mistreating women staffers over the years, which he denied.
Conyer’s retirement drew a crowded field of would-be successors, including two sitting state senators, two well-known former state representatives (one of whom is a liberal firebrand), a mayor and the president of the Detroit City Council.
“This is a case where there are a lot of moving pieces because there is no dominant candidate,” says Ed Sarpolus, a pollster for Target-Insyght in Lansing. His most recent poll showed three candidates – Brenda Jones, the City Council president; Rashida Tlaib, the liberal firebrand; and Bill Wild, the mayor of Westland and a businessman – in a virtual tie with about 20 percent of the vote each and 14 percent undecided in mid-July.
As in other Democratic primaries across the country, the race has exposed tensions between more establishment figures and the insurgent forces of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
Tlaib – a Muslim of Palestinian heritage in a district long associated with black Detroit – positioned herself as the most liberal and aggressive contender, promising to upend politics-as-usual in Washington.
She calls herself “the bullhorn girl,” ready to take on health care, civil rights, educational equity and corporate greed. “Corrections is a for-profit industry,” she says, rattling off causes with enthusiasm. “Give me two years, and I’ll change that issue.”
Other candidates offered more traditional messages. Jones touts her electoral experience and argues she’s the best positioned to bring federal aid to low-income communities across the district.
“I have dealt with challenging situations in my tenure as a council member,” Jones says. She says that she’s most proud of “restoring civility” back to Detroit government – and that civility could also go a long way in Congress.
About those other races Tuesday
There are many other contests in the four states holding primaries Aug. 7. In Missouri and Michigan, voters will choose their respective party nominees for U.S. Senate races.
In the Show Me State, the two front-runners, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Josh Hawley, are likely to clinch easy primary wins – and quickly pivot to a bruising general election race.
In Michigan, two Republican businessmen are locked in a dead heat for a chance to take on Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the election Nov. 6, according to a Detroit Free Press poll. Stabenow is heavily favored to win another term.
Michigan will host a contested gubernatorial primary Tuesday. Seven candidates vie to be Michigan’s next governor, and they’ve spent a record $27 million as they enter the home stretch of the primary.
The race is likely to be a toss-up in the fall. In the primary, Republican Bill Schuette and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer hold commanding leads before the election Aug. 7.
Contributing: Todd Spangler and Paul Egan
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