The Sunflower Showdown: Insights from Tuesday’s Primary in Kansas By Heather E. Yates
Kansas held its primary election on Tuesday where there were two key races in Kansas’ primaries that may offer important insights about the direction of state policy and for the November Midterms: The Kansas Republican gubernatorial primary and the Democratic primary for the third Congressional district.
The Republican Gubernatorial Primary
The Republican gubernatorial contest featured incumbent Jeff Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Jeff Colyer served as Lt. Governor with Governor Sam Brownback before Brownback accepted his post as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Colyer has served Kansas as Governor since January 2018 making him the incumbent candidate.
Kris Kobach, a well-known anti-immigration hardliner, gained national recognition for his work on Trump’s now disbanded committee to investigate voter fraud in the 2016 election. The race is nearly tied with a difference of 161 votes and Kobach’s thin lead over Colyer is by less than one point.
Pursuant state statute, the election results were declared too close to call and the votes are presently undergoing a recount, subjecting the totals reported here to change. Kris Kobach, the state’s chief election officer, initially refused to recuse himself from supervising the recount procedure, but has since relented.
While Kobach’s candidacy for Kansas governor has focused a great deal of attention on immigration policy, the Republican primary also represents a referendum on Brownback era policies known as the Kansas tax cut experiment. In his short tenure as state Governor, Colyer has governed from the economic center in cooperation with the state legislature. The outcome of the Kansas gubernatorial primary holds significant implications for the direction of Kansas’ finance and education policy.
Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District
The party nominated a dark horse candidate in the Kansas third Congressional district, Sharice Davids, a Native American, Lesbian, and Mixed Martial Arts fighter. This is history for the district and likely nation. Davids defeated the favored front-runner, Brent Welder, a labor attorney, by almost 4 points. The primary was a six-way contest, which is particularly notable in a state where it is usually difficult to recruit Democratic challengers.
The Democratic state party committee interpreted the crowded primary as an encouraging indicator for the general election. The KS-03 is categorically a swing district. It is a suburban district in the Kansas City area with a record of electing moderates from both Democrat and Republican affiliation. In 2010, the Republicans flipped the district when the incumbent Democrat Dennis Moore announced his retirement.
Elite Endorsements and Messaging
What is the value of a political endorsement? Both the President and the Democratic Party’s rank-and-file made endorsements of Kansas’s candidates. While Donald Trump did not travel to Kansas, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rallied for Brent Welder for the KS-03 primary.
Donald Trump’s support for Kobach was well understood among Kansas Republicans, and especially for the work on the voter fraud panel. Perhaps the need for personal visit on Kobach’s behalf was not deemed necessary and, instead, the President tweeted his endorsement of Kobach within hours of the Kansas polls opening. Any effect Trump’s endorsement may have on the outcome is likely negligible given that Trump already enjoys levels of support among rural Kansas Republicans.
Meanwhile, in the KS-3 district, the candidate Bernie Sanders endorsed, Brent Welder, lost to Davids who campaigned with EMILY’s list support. There are other factors at work in conjunction with high profile endorsements; however, campaign messaging is and will remain important in the Congressional districts. Democratic candidates seem to be experiencing more success with localized messages, rather than nationalized campaign issues, which could account for why elite endorsements experience varied effects. ,
PACs and Independent Expenditures
Outside spending in the KS-3 Democratic primary mattered. PAC support through independent expenditures for Davids made a significant impact. Welder was supported by a handful of PACS like the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but the endorsement was not accompanied by any significant financial support. EMILY’s List PAC contributed the maximum amount allowed by law to Davids campaign in additional to a PAC named Women Vote! spent over $600,000 on independent advertising. The results suggest that this kind of outside spending on behalf of Davids influenced the race and pushed her over the finish line. Independent expenditures mattered in districts like the KS-03 and they will likely matter in many other Congressional races leading up to the November election.
Blue Energy in Red Districts
On Tuesday morning, social media feeds reported of long lines at polling locations, an encouraging indicator for Democrats. The field notes corroborated local election officials’ reports that voter turnout in Kansas for the 2018 primary outpaced the turnout of 2010 and 2014. The local reports reflect larger trends reported nationally, that voter registration and participate this year is outpacing previous years. Increased registration and visible participation in the primary are indicators that suggest increased energy, and for Democrats to achieve their “blue wave,” they need to sustain that energy through November.
Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices (Palgrave).