W

hat lessons does the success of Congresswoman Sharice Davids hold for the rest of Kansas?  

Davids became Kansas’ only Democrat in Congress after defeating incumbent Kevin Yoder by nearly ten points in 2018.  Democrats had taken notice after Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton narrowly won this district in 2016.  The Kansas City-area third district includes all of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties, and northern Miami County.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, earlier versions of it were represented by moderate Democrat Dennis Moore.

Moore was a white, married, heterosexual male and a prominent local attorney.  Davids is a self-described policy wonk, lesbian, Native American member of the Ho-Chunk nation, and former Mixed Martial Arts fighter.  She defeated democratic socialist Brett Welder to win the Democratic nomination in 2018, then benefitted from the anti-Trump sentiment that fed a nationwide “wave” election.  Democrats, including many women, did particularly well in suburban districts, especially among college-educated female voters.

Since taking office, Davids has focused on quiet, policy-based leadership, a stark contrast with other newly-elected Democratic women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Iihan Omar. Locally, she has been “shadowing” workers in her district to learn more about their jobs.  Davids is cautious, refusing to sign policies such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, arguing that they may not be in the best interest of her constituents.

Davids is smart to stay active and connected.  Wave elections like 2018 are often followed by self-correcting ones, when many of the newly-elected officials are culled and the districts return to their original party leaning.  For example, in 2010, Republicans won back the U.S. House largely by defeating Democrats who had been elected in 2006 and 2008, which had been good years for Democrats.  Of 52 Democrats defeated in 2010, 22 had been elected just two years earlier, 11 more in 2006, and one in a 2009 special election.  Republicans also won most open seats, and President Obama suffered the biggest setback of his presidency.  

Two Republican challengers have already filed, both women.  Amanda Adkins is a corporate executive who served in the Brownback Administration.  Sarah Hart Weir is the former CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society.  These candidates may seek to differentiate themselves from national party leadership, but order to win the primary, they may still have promise tax cuts, criminalization of abortion, absolutist stances on gun rights and support for President Trump.  This could help Davids, because issues like education, public health and “common sense gun legislation” now play better with many suburban voters than do the old Republican themes of “God, guns, and gays.”  

If Davids survives 2020, her next big test will be redistricting after the 2020 Census. Presumably, the district will still center on Johnson County.  

What does this mean for Kansas?  First, Democrats are likely to retain their majority in the House, so it makes sense for the state to have representation there.  Davids’ seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee affects the trucking and aircraft industries so important to Kansas’ economy.  Second, other urban and suburban districts in Kansas could eventually shift as well.  In 2018, Democrat Paul Davis nearly won in the 2nd district, winning its population centers of Topeka and Lawrence.  In Wichita, the voters of Sedgwick County backed Sam Brownback in 2010 and 2014, but chose Laura Kelly over Kris Kobach last year.  Most Kansans today live in metropolitan areas, and they are not immune from the political changes seen in similar communities around the country.

Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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