With President Donald Trump’s poll numbers sliding into historically low territory, Democrats won’t be satisfied with modest gains in next year’s midterm election.
They’re hoping for an anti-Trump wave that gives them control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Needing 24 seats to gain a majority, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting up to 50 potential swing districts across the country.
Among the districts that the DCCC has circled in red is the Kansas 3rd, now represented by Republican Kevin Yoder. It’s a compact district that encompasses Johnson County, Wyandotte County and a sliver of Miami County.
Yoder is in his fourth term, but he’s one of 23 Republicans attempting to hold seats in districts where Trump lost to Hillary Clinton.
“Dozens find themselves defending seats where Donald Trump is already deeply unpopular,” DCCC Director Dan Sena wrote in a memo circulated to the media in January.
“Together the House Republicans and Trump administration are pushing a wildly unpopular agenda that threatens their standing from the Rust Best to the Sun Belt,” Sena wrote, singling out the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Yoder’s vote for the Obamacare repeal bill and his general support of the president’s agenda could make him vulnerable, said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist.
“He’s a very conservative Republican representing a much more moderate, swingy district, which certainly puts him on the radar for potentially having a very competitive race,” Miller said.
The 3rd District can be competitive even in normal political times, Miller said, noting that Kathleen Sebelius carried it both times she ran for governor and that Democrat Dennis Moore held the seat for six terms before he retired for health reasons.
“It traditionally has a bit of a Republican tilt to it, but it can be quite competitive,” he said.
Democrats lining up
With the 2018 primary still a year away, the race for the Democratic nomination is already crowded.
Retired corporate attorney and health care advocate Andrea Ramsey — who last week received an endorsement from EMILY’s List, a national fundraising group that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights — appears to be among the early front-runners. She entered the race on June 13 and raised more than $200,000 by a June 30 campaign finance reporting deadline.
However, it took a $25,000 loan from Ramsey to meet the fundraising target, according to her Federal Election Commission report.
Looking for a constructive way to channel her anger after Clinton’s defeat, Ramsey began thinking about running for Congress in the spring. She said Yoder’s May 4 vote in favor of what she calls “that disastrous Trumpcare bill” cemented her decision.
“That’s when I knew I had to step up and run,” Ramsey said. “That’s the day that I declared, ‘Not only am I in, I’m all in.’”
Recent entrant Tom Niermann, a Pembroke Hill history teacher, also appears to be building a strong campaign, with former Clinton staffer Zach Helder at the helm.
With Yoder referring to Ramsey and Brent Welder, a Bonner Springs attorney who entered the race in late July, as “Bernie Sanders extremists,” Niermann hopes to prevail by appealing to moderates in both parties.
“My belief in a particular political philosophy is not bound up in big government or small government but in good government,” Niermann said in a recent interview. “Government that is responsive to the needs of the people.”
Meanwhile, Welder, a former union official whom Sanders appointed to the Democratic National Platform Committee, told the Kansas City Star that “only a populist candidate” can defeat Yoder.
Jay Sidie, the 2016 Democratic nominee who despite getting into the race late gave Yoder his strongest challenge to date, has said he intends to run again but hasn’t formally announced.
“I moved the needle to within 10 points of Yoder with a five-month window,” Sidie said in a recent interview. “So, I think I’ve proven I’m a viable candidate.”
Despite frequent appeals to donors, Sidie appears to be struggling to raise money. From January through the end of June, he raised only $30,000, according his FEC report.
Yoder’s war chest brimming
Yoder, meanwhile, raised nearly $800,000 in the latest reporting period and has more than $1 million in cash on hand, according to his report.
He’s also armed with talking points to counter charges that his conservative voting record makes him vulnerable in a district that is trending more moderate in recent state and national elections. In a recent interview, he said he’s working to bridge the partisan divide.
“I think people are frustrated with the bitter partisanship both in Washington and here at home,” Yoder said. “I’ve been a voice of reason, I think, in that storm. Trying to reach across the aisle (and) work with Democrats and Republicans to solve problems.”
Yoder points to his sponsorship of legislation to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health and to broaden access to child-care tax credits as evidence that he’s not a tea party conservative.
But he’s quick to label his opponents — Ramsey in particular — as “leftists.”
“Their attempt to lurch this district so far to the left is going to make them out of touch with the constituents I work with every single day,” he said.
Yoder’s campaign experience and fundraising prowess make him formidable even if the anti-Trump climate persists, Miller said. It will take an opponent with the right message and enough money to make it stick to deny Yoder a fifth term, he said.
“Because I guarantee you, a lot of money is going to come in to defend Kevin Yoder,” Miller said. “You need a candidate on the other side capable of attracting enough Democratic money to offset the pro-Yoder spending.”
The DCCC is also targeting Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District, currently held by Lynn Jenkins, who’s not running for re-election. Democrat Paul Davis, a former Kansas House minority leader who narrowly lost a 2014 bid to unseat Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, is likely to run.
Two Republicans have announced: state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, of Leavenworth, and Basehor City Council member Vernon Fields. Several more Republicans are eyeing the race, including other members of the Kansas Senate.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.