Politics & Government

Democrats’ ‘weak bench’ in Kansas makes Paul Davis a popular candidate — for two races

Paul Davis speaks in Wichita during his 2014 campaign for governor against Sam Brownback. He might be interested in running again in 2018.
Paul Davis speaks in Wichita during his 2014 campaign for governor against Sam Brownback. He might be interested in running again in 2018. Eagle file photo

When Paul Davis drops his daughter off for school, the other parents approach and tell him what they think he should do with his future.

Davis, a Lawrence attorney who served 12 years in the Kansas House, lost a contentious race for governor in 2014 by 4 percentage points as Republicans swept every statewide office and congressional seat in Kansas for the second straight midterm election.

A decade ago, Kansas Democrats held the governor’s office and a pair of congressional seats, but since 2010 Republicans have dominated in statewide and federal races.

Now, the Democrats’ strategic plan sets an ambitious goal of capturing the governor’s office, two congressional seats and a majority in the Kansas House by 2020. Davis, who served as minority leader in the Kansas House, is seen as a top prospect to achieve two of those goals.

“It’s hard to go much anywhere without having somebody approach me about what I should do in 2018,” said Davis, whose name has been bandied about by party operatives from Wichita to Washington as a top prospect for 2018 when Kansans will elect a new governor and hold mid-term congressional elections with President Donald Trump in the White House.

Kerry Gooch, the state party’s executive director, acknowledged that one reason for that is that Davis is one of few Democrats with statewide name recognition.

“Yeah, we do have a very weak bench as the Democratic Party in Kansas … one reason why Paul’s name always jumps to the top of the list,” Gooch said.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed both Kansas’ 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts on a list of 59 seats it would target as Democrats attempt to recapture the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, represents the 3rd District; Republican Lynn Jenkins of Topeka recently announced she would not run again in the 2nd District.

A faction of party activists in Kansas are encouraging Davis to make another run at the governor’s office, but Jenkins’ announcement has fueled an effort to recruit Davis to run for the open seat in 2018.

Davis said he’s “very interested in being on the ballot in 2018,” but hasn’t decided whether he will run for Congress or make another bid for the governor’s mansion. He’s been traveling the state seeking input as he weighs the decision.

The 2nd Congressional District stretches from northeast Kansas to the Oklahoma border and includes Davis’ hometown of Lawrence, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds. Davis beat Gov. Sam Brownback in the district by 6 percentage points in 2014, and Democrat Nancy Boyda held the seat for two years before losing to Jenkins in 2008.

Davis said he wants to watch what develops in Washington and Topeka over the next several months before he makes a decision, but he could face pressure to commit to one or the other when the Kansas Democratic Party meets this weekend for its annual Washington Days convention.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer announced his campaign for governor this past week, and former Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty has also expressed interest in a run.

“The pressure’s high for someone to decide pretty quickly so other candidates can figure out what to do,” said Chris Reeves, Kansas’ Democratic national committeeman.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said he’s doubtful of the Democrats’ chances in the 3rd Congressional District as long as Yoder stays in the seat and doesn’t pursue a run at the governor’s office.

“Hillary won the 3rd District, but Yoder won fairly handily,” Beatty said. The 2nd District, on the other hand, is wide open, he said.

Howard Bauleke, who served as former 3rd District Democratic Congressman Dennis Moore’s chief of staff during his time in congress, said that Davis – who already has strong name recognition and a statewide fundraising network – is wise to wait.

“Obviously, he’d be a strong candidate for either position. And as usual the Democratic potential candidate field is pretty sparse,” Bauleke said. “It’s smart of him to keep his options open.”

Bauleke said the state’s political landscape could shift if Brownback or Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a potential GOP candidate for governor, winds up with a role in Trump’s administration.

“It’s unclear still who a lot of the players on the political board are going to be 18 months from now,” Bauleke said.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he thinks the GOP can maintain its dominance, but he noted that neither party has ever been able to hold the Kansas governor’s office for three terms since 1957.

“It’s always flipped,” Barker said, warning that Republicans will face the curse of history. In congressional races, the biggest variable the GOP will face will be Trump’s popularity, he said.

The Democratic Party hasn’t had a gubernatorial primary in Kansas since 1998 when state Rep. Tom Sawyer easily defeated Fred Phelps, the head of the Westboro Baptist Church. And the party hasn’t had a competitive primary since 1990 when then-Treasurer Joan Finney defeated former Gov. John Carlin on her way to the governor’s mansion, Beatty said.

Davis’ campaign trail prediction that the state was headed for a financial cliff came true less than a week after the 2014 election. The state has faced a cycle of budget gaps, cuts and tax increases since the vote.

But he’s also aware of the shortcomings of his 2014 campaign, which devoted significant resources to courting moderate Republican voters in Johnson County but failed to drive strong turnout in Democratic-leaning areas like Wyandotte County.

“I think that you have to energize voters. … But the challenge is: How can you get the Republican votes you need while still turning out Democratic votes?” he said.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3