Guest Commentary

Kansas Democrats shouldn’t forget their working-class roots

Michael A. Smith

Democrats have found a new base — professional, suburban women. However, they had better not forget their working-class roots. Here in Kansas, Democrats won big last year with Gov. Laura Kelly and Congresswoman Sharice Davids. Paul Davis nearly defeated Steve Watkins to flip the 2nd District as well. All three candidates ran solid campaigns — but their appeal was to different blocs of voters.

Davids represents the new wave. She won as part of a national Democratic strategy to win back the U.S. House by targeting districts won by Hillary Clinton. She campaigned to professional women who worry about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court, the public schools and their own daughters. It worked, but the KC-area 3rd is the only Congressional district like that in Kansas.

Kelly’s campaign was quite different. Instead of an entrenched incumbent, she ran against the outrageous Kris Kobach, who was so arrogant he did not build a campaign organization. Apparently under the impression that he could win with President Trump’s endorsement, FOX News appearances and machine gun Jeeps, Kobach conceded the get-out-the-vote “ground game” to Kelly. Could she have beaten a tougher opponent, such as former Gov. Jeff Colyer?

Kelly did hit all the right notes. In addition to the big turnout of professional women, particularly in the KC area, she also won back the Davis-Trump voters: those who backed Paul Davis for governor in 2014 and Donald Trump in 2016. Paul Davis himself won back some of these, but not quite enough — some split their tickets between Kelly and Davis’ opponent, Steve Watkins.

Trump-Kelly voters are Kansas’ answer to the under-reported phenomenon of Obama-Trump voters, prevalent in other states. Nationwide, two voters backed Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016, for every one that switched from Mitt Romney in ’12 to Hillary Clinton in ’16. They are mostly working class, white and live in rural or exurban areas just outside small cities not unlike Topeka. Their issues include deep worries about the loss of working-class jobs in their areas, as well as the epidemics of opioids, methamphetamine and suicide that are ravaging their communities, their grown children, and their grandchildren — particularly the ones that do not graduate from college. These horrors are fed by despair about the future and the shortage of good health care outside large, urban areas and college towns.

Obama-Trump voters are a tie-breaking 5 to 15 percent of the electorate across America’s manufacturing “rust belt”: Great Lakes states, plus the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. They decided the last three presidential elections. Yet when I asked about them at a recent Dole Institute symposium, the Democratic consultants fell silent. Even the panel’s Republican consultant said they were “hard to imagine.” Only the nonpartisan journalist and the exit pollster seemed aware of them. These voters are neither liberal, nor conservative. Their issues are very different from the ones that energize Davids’ supporters.

Republicans may nominate better candidates next time. Kobach and his ego are now out of elected office. If the Republicans deny the embattled Trump a re-nomination, Democrats will no longer be able to tie Republican opponents to him, as Davids did. Nor can Democrats build a majority with just upper-income, suburban districts.

Kelly’s victory in manufacturing-heavy, competitive or Republican-leaning counties like Shawnee and Sedgwick is a good start. If they succeed, Kansas Democrats can become an example for the nation.

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

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