Politics & Policy

In Kansas, a GOP Congressman Tries to Outrun Trump — and Governor Brownback

Kevin Yoder campaign ad (via YouTube)
Kevin Yoder is struggling against the headwinds of an unpopular presidential nominee and an unpopular governor as he seeks reelection.

Across the country, Republican House and Senate candidates are working to avoid drowning in Donald Trump’s wake. But in Kansas’s third District, there’s someone even less popular for Representative Kevin Yoder to worry about: Governor Sam Brownback.

The staunchly conservative Brownback has been an albatross around Kansas Republicans’ necks this cycle, though he’s not on the ballot. Backlash to his policies led moderate primary challengers to victory over more than a dozen conservative state legislators with ties to him in August.

Democrats are hoping he will prove similarly toxic for Republicans in the general election one week from today.

Yoder faces Democrat Jay Sidie, a political newcomer, in his campaign for a fourth term in the House. To this point in his career, Yoder has yet to encounter a serious challenge: He easily bested Democratic opponents in 2010 and 2012, and ran unopposed in 2014. But Republicans say that’s more a testament to Yoder than it is to his district, which includes the liberal stronghold of Kansas City and a swathe of moderate Republicans in the suburbs, and had been in Democratic hands for over a decade before he won it in 2010. It is exactly the kind of affluent, highly educated swing district in which Trump has struggled to gain traction, and while Yoder remains favored to survive against Sidie, the twin headwinds from Brownback and the top of the ticket have combined to give him a bit more action than he bargained for.

“Obviously the Democrats put all their weight behind linking Kevin Yoder to Sam Brownback, and I think currently that strategy makes the race competitive,” says Kansas GOP consultant Aaron Trost, who lives in the district.

Brownback took office in 2010 as a conservative reformer, and in 2012, he dramatically reduced taxes and exempted pass-through income from being taxed — something no other state had tried. By 2014, a budget shortfall had left many Kansas voters soured on an “experiment” — Brownback’s own word — they felt had failed. He ultimately won a close, bitterly fought reelection campaign against state house minority leader Paul Davis, but two years later, some voters remain disillusioned.

Sidie, in turn, has based his campaign on opposition to the perception that Brownback cut education spending, and he has gotten a big assist from national Democrats. President Barack Obama endorsed him, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which is charged with electing Democrats to the House, has invested $1.5 million in the race, according to a source tracking ad buys. The message is clear: Trump might have put the race on the table, but Democrats believe it is Brownback who can ultimately hand them the win.

“I’m not surprised the district is competitive,” says Sidie campaign manager Shawn Borich. “Kansans have seen the effects of Sam Brownback and Kevin Yoder’s extreme agenda for six years and they’re ready for a political outsider and successful small businessman whose goals are to work with people and find common ground.”

Former Brownback chief of staff David Kensinger brushes off the “specious” idea that the governor has been an animating force in the race. “I think they want to make it that,” he says, “but that’s an awfully tough argument to make,” because Yoder and Brownback never served together: When Brownback was a congressman, Yoder was still in the state legislature in Kansas; the year Yoder was elected to Congress, Brownback was elected governor.

Democrats have blanketed the airwaves with ads making the connection nonetheless.

“Kevin Yoder and the Brownback Republicans have lost their way, and they’ve lost my vote,” a disaffected Republican declares in one Sidie ad. “Sam Brownback and Kevin Yoder — the wrong formula for Kansas,” echoes the narrator in a DCCC ad.

Brownback is so unpopular in the district that the Yoder campaign is attacking Sidie for failing to oppose him in one of its own ads.

Brownback is so unpopular in the district that the Yoder campaign is attacking Sidie for failing to oppose him in one of its own ads: “With Governor Brownback up for election, and education funding in the balance, Sidie refused to vote against Brownback,” the narrator says. (Brownback’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Yoder boasts a large cash advantage — $1.3 million on hand compared to Sidie’s $52,000, per FEC reports for the period ending October 19 — and his campaign is now making an effort to define Sidie, who some Republicans say has been able to skate by as a political newcomer with no record for voters to latch onto. He “benefited from the fact that he was a total unknown” before entering this race, says Clay Barker, the executive director for the Kansas Republican party. “People can project on him.”

Republicans also think the announcement last week that Obamacare premiums were set to increase dramatically has handed them a winning issue. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC dedicated to electing House Republicans, began running an ad on the premium hikes Friday, as part of an $800,000 buy that will keep their message on air in Yoder’s district through Election Day. The buy is intended to keep Yoder’s seat — and other “second-tier” races that might not be competitive if it weren’t for the past month of revelations about Trump — from sucking up too many GOP dollars as Republicans battle it out in tougher districts across the country. 

“We jumped into the race as part of our firewall strategy — spending in tier-two races to ensure that Democrat spending doesn’t go unanswered and to try to force the fight back into tier-one competitive districts,” says Emily Davis, communications director for the Congressional Leadership Fund.

At the end of the day, Yoder is likely to hang on. Both the Cook Political Report and Rothenberg & Gonzales rate the race “leans Republican.” A poll conducted by the DCCC in early October, following the release of the now-infamous 2005 Access Hollywood video of Trump, found Clinton ahead in the district 52 percent to 42 percent, while Yoder led Sidie 44 percent to 40 percent. He is in much better shape than Trump, but not as strong as some in the party had expected he would be.

Republicans are hoping Yoder will offer an appealing balance to voters in the district who supported Republican presidential hopefuls in the past two cycles, but can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump.

“At the end of the day, I think enough people in Johnson County are not going to want to give Democrats one-party rule,” says Trost.

If they aren’t, and Yoder suffers an upset defeat, he likely won’t be the only Republican dragged down by Trump’s unpopularity this year — or by Brownback’s.

— Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial publication. 

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