Midterm messages nowhere more mixed than in Kansas
Shallow ‘blue wave’ may have reached rural state but it is still Trump country
When US president Donald Trump visited Kansas a month before the US midterm elections to rally for Republican candidates on the ballot, more than 11,000 supporters came to the Topeka Expo Centre to hear him speak. It was the same day as the controversial US Senate vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the US supreme court, and Midwest conservatives were celebrating. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign manager (and Topeka native) Brad Parscale proudly declared, “Kansas is Trump country”.
A month later, the results from Tuesday’s election are in and it seems he is still, at least partly, correct.
Kansas progressives needed a win on Tuesday. The state went for Trump by 20 points in 2016, and Republicans have controlled both Kansas state houses as well as the governorship since 2011. They have had free reign to implement disastrous trickle-down economic policies, gut government spending on education and welfare programmes, and stoke fears of illegal immigration and voter fraud. In short, liberals in Kansas have not had much to be happy or proud about lately.
For some time on Tuesday evening, it seemed like this might all change.
As returns came in, Kansas voters delivered a clear rebuke to statewide GOP leadership by electing Democrat Laura Kelly as the next Kansas governor. She defeated secretary of state Kris Kobach while carrying only nine of Kansas’s 105 counties, most of them in the northeast corner of the state, around the cities of Topeka, Lawrence and the edges of the Kansas City Metropolitan area.
The same corner of the state, which encompasses a huge swathe of the largely suburban Johnson County, elected first-time candidate Sharice Davids to the KS third congressional district, beating three-time Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder, to flip the house seat for Democrats.
Davids’s win is historic because it makes her the first openly gay woman to represent Kansas in the US Congress, and one of the first Native American congresswomen, an honour she now shares with New Mexico Representative-elect Deb Haaland.
As election night continued, it looked like the predicted “blue wave” might have trickled its way into Kansas, against all the odds.
Davids’s win is historic because it makes her the first openly gay woman to represent Kansas in the US Congress
However, as more precincts in the larger and more rural KS second congressional district began reporting, Democrat Paul Davis’s slim lead over Republican newcomer Steve Watkins began to dwindle. It appeared Watkins, an army veteran and touted “outsider” with no prior political experience, was going to reap the rewards of a sitting Republican president stumping for him at a highly publicised rally, in a key moment of conservative momentum.
In the end, a lead of less than two percentage points gave the win to Watkins and a third US congressional seat to Republicans.
The final result? Kansas flipped one of four congressional seats and ended more than seven years of Republican governorship.
It’s hard to contest that Kansas is still “Trump country”, but the key word in that sentence is “country”. The cities increasingly belong to more progressive, more educated, and more diverse voters and candidates, a trend that is reflected across America.
The cities and suburbs of America just elected an historic number of women to the US Congress, including the first two Muslim women, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and a host of other firsts in US politics for women, minorities and the LGBTQ community.
Sharice Davids’s win in Kansas is a national headline in this election, and a huge story to come out of Kansas. But she was not running in “Trump country”. She was running in the most populous, most urban district in the most blue-leaning corner of Kansas.
According to the AP, more than 43,000 of the 45,991 votes that won the governorship for Laura Kelly came from a single county in the same progressive-leaning corner of the state. Johnson County, Kansas, has the largest population, the highest median income and the highest percentage of college-educated voters of any county in Kansas.
Johnson County has the largest population, the highest median income and the highest percentage of college-educated voters of any county in Kansas
In mid-term elections, a single suburban district can swing a race one way or another. Kansas has just proven this. But with congressional redistricting coming on the back of the 2020 census, and president Trump continuing to expertly play one side of US politics against the other, there is little to indicate that the seeds of geographical, racial and ideological division that resulted in his election two years ago have begun to even remotely dissipate.
Americans can celebrate historic “firsts” in this election, and Democrats can breathe a sigh of relief at the promise of a house majority providing a legislative check on the Trump administration. But there are still crucial lessons to be learned, especially from rural voters.
The most important lessons should come not from the victory of Kansas’s Sharice Davids in the progressive-trending suburbs, but rather the very close loss of Beto O’Rourke in deep red Texas.
The final repudiation of Trumpism must come from within “Trump Country”, not be forced upon it from the suburbs. Democrats have two years to figure out how to do it. The clock started on Wednesday.
Nick Carswell is programme manager at the University of Kansas Audio-Reader Network and a contributor to Kansas Public Radio