Democrats had a lot at stake this year. They won a qualified victory, and they owe it all to new voters.
Sharice Davids captured the KC-area, 3rd Congressional District from incumbent Kevin Yoder, while Laura Kelly defeated the drama-seeking Kris Kobach for the governorship. Davids is a former White House fellow with a bold approach. She will be Kansas’ first openly gay, and first female Native American member of Congress from Kansas. Kelly’s more subdued, all-business approach contrasts sharply with Kobach’s antics. However, in the 2nd Congressional District, Paul Davis could not quite pull off the win against newcomer Steve Watkins.
In the state's two largest counties, Johnson and Sedgwick, Kris Kobach received more votes this year than Sam Brownback did in 2014. However, Democrats overwhelmed them with new voters. These are voters who simply did not materialize back in 2014, the last midterm election. Democratic vote totals jumped by more than 50,000 in Johnson County, more than 15,000 in Sedgwick County. In Davids’ case, she did flip about 10,000 former Yoder supporters to her side this time, but the rest of her increase over 2014 — about 30,000 — came from voters who are new to voting in midterms.
Things start to drop off as we head west. The 2nd District merges Lawrence and Topeka with several rural counties, and a majority there supported Trump in 2016. Even so, Paul Davis got about 30,000 more votes than did 2014 Democratic nominee Margie Wakefield. Only about 4000 of Davis’ increase came from former Republican voters. The rest were new. According to politico.com, with his less-than-2000-vote deficit, Davis came closer to winning that seat than did Democrats in similar districts elsewhere, such as Kentucky, but he fell just short of the goal line.
Turnout also rose in counties with smaller cities like Lyon (Emporia), Saline (Salina), and Finney (Garden City), but the increase split more evenly between both parties, plus independent Greg Orman. Turnout and party splits changed little in rural counties with very small populations.
What are the takeaways?
First, Kansas mirrors the nation. Democrats regained the House majority this year by targeting seats which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and Davids' victory is a case in point. As things become more rural — and more pro-Trump — Democrats benefit a good deal less.
Second, this election was about the bombastic duo of Kris Kobach and Donald Trump. Kobach tied himself closely to Trump while campaigning, and also featured his own outspoken rhetoric about immigrants, plus dramatic behavior in several court hearings and frequent FOX News appearances. Even 2014’s controversy over former Gov. Brownback’s tax-slashing, budget-draining “glide path to zero” just could not bring out voters the way hot-button issues and national controversy can.
Finally, it is a new day in Kansas' Congressional delegation. Watkins remains a wild card, for now. As for Davids, my money is on her teaming up with fellow progressive Democrat, Kansas City (MO) Representative Emmanuel Cleaver. With plenty of shared, urban and suburban interests that cross state boundaries, the "Kansas City caucus" may compete with the Kansas caucus for Davids' attention. Yet Kansas issues like water, agriculture, and transportation still effect the whole state — and still need bipartisan attention. Davids’ support is critical. She will be the only Kansas member of the House’s new, Democratic majority.
The campaigns are over. Now the real work begins.
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.