After two hours of debate, the final question in Wednesday night’s Democratic candidate forum may have been the most important to the crowd: How can you beat the Republicans to take the seat in Congress recently vacated by Mike Pompeo?
The responses of the five candidates who participated were as varied as their backgrounds.
Robert Tillman, a retired court services officer, said his experience as a candidate is his strong suit. He has run for the office three times before. Last year, he lost the Democratic primary to Wichita lawyer Dan Giroux, but won 14 of the 17 counties in the 4th Congressional District.
“That to me says I can win this election,” Tillman said. “We’ve got to stop looking like the underdog. We’ve got to look like we are someone who the public of the United States needs.”
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Charlie Walker, an Andover police officer who wore a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt and sport coat on the stage, immediately replied that the Democrats need to change direction to the kind of progressive populism of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“This is a populist state and I think we are looking for something different,” he said, noting that Sanders won the Kansas Democratic presidential caucus and Donald Trump won the state in the general election last year. “I think it is time for a fresh face.”
Next up was Dennis McKinney, former state treasurer and a nine-term legislator from western Kansas. He said he could “broaden the base of voters” and appeal to non-Democrats in the Republican-heavy 4th District.
“These people are smart, engaged voters,” he said. “If we talk to them in ways that remind them what our common values are, they will support us.”
He drew loud cheers when he quoted the prophet Isaiah: “We’re to seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow.”
Civil rights lawyer James Thompson, who had what appeared to be the largest contingent of supporters in the crowd, said he thinks the Democrats’ best chance is to rally their base and to tap into the opposition activism that has bloomed since Trump’s election.
“We saw 3,500 women come out and march in Wichita,” he said, adding that harnessing that power, along with other groups such as immigrants, is the key to Democratic victory.
“I have fought for civil rights, I have fought for justice every day of my life,” as a soldier and later a lawyer, he said. “We are a progressive party. We don’t need to put up another Republican-light candidate.”
And finally, Laura Lombard, owner of an international trade consulting business:
“I’m the only one up here who’s already succeeded in Washington,” she said. “At an early age I’ve been able to build a business in Washington, D.C., that helps companies here already.”
It was a campaign forum directed at the smallest of electorates.
Only about 40 people – members of the Democrats’ 4th District Committee – will decide which the candidates will go on to face the Republican and Libertarian nominees in an April 11 special election to replace Pompeo.
The Wichita Republican congressman resigned the seat last month to become CIA director in the Trump administration.
But even though there are only 40 voters, roughly four times that many people attended the forum.
After being admonished to tone down the reaction after the first few questions by moderator Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University, they mostly settled in for lengthy discussions of weighty subjects from international trade to immigration to gun control to abortion. Though the forum ran well past its allotted 90 minutes, hardly anyone left early.
Their mood was determination, seeing the special election as a chance to gain some redemption after losing the presidency in Trump’s upset victory of Democratic standard bearer Hillary Clinton.
Possibly the biggest applause line of the night went to Lombard, the first candidate who got to answer the question “What is the greatest threat to America’s national security today?”
“Well, I’d like to say Donald Trump,” she replied, touching off a roar from the crowd. “And Donald Trump’s tweeting.”
She said she sees the president as a threat to democracy and civil liberties and that he is too cozy with Russia.
“Russia is not our friend,” she said. “We should work with them when we can, but … at the end of the day they have a very different viewpoint of the world.
“We’re seeing that play out in Syria. We’re seeing that play out in Eastern Europe.”
Thompson agreed with Lombard about the biggest threat.
“Right now we have a president who is destabilizing our country. He’s destabilizing the world,” Thompson said. “He is putting our allies on notice that they’re not allies any more. He’s threatening to invade Mexico. He’s become friends with somebody who’s traditionally been our enemy,” referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
McKinney cited safety of food supplies and cyber security, with terrorism a close third.
He advocated for robust intelligence and military capabilities, and drew big applause with a pitch for better treatment of soldiers and veterans.
“If those young men and women are willing to go into harm’s way for us, we ought to give them the best protection going into battle and the best health care coming out of battle,” he said.
Tillman cited terrorism, cyber attacks and wars that haven’t been adequately justified to the people. “Why are we fighting in the seven countries where we’re fighting now?” he said.
Walker said the biggest threat is the “dissolving of the American dream and crumbling middle class.”