Campaigns

Democratic star of 2018 takes low-key approach after flipping Kansas district

Sharice Davids, a self-described ‘policy nerd,’ is a top GOP target in 2020

Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids delivers UPS packages on July 2 at the Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kan.,  as part of her “Sharice’s Shift” outreach program. (Stephanie Akin/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — Sharice Davids became one of the biggest stars of the 2018 midterms when she flipped a House seat in Kansas from red to blue. But when the Democrat passed through a suburban shopping mall here, with an entourage of aides one afternoon this summer, almost no one recognized her.

Davids didn’t seem to mind.

She was shadowing a UPS driver making deliveries, the latest installment of “Sharice’s Shift,” a recurring effort to interact “directly with local workers, businesses and everyday people” that Davids launched after winning her 3rd District seat, which includes Kansas City, Kansas, and its populous suburbs.

Another politician would seize the opportunity to work the room, but Davids didn’t mention that she was a congresswoman, or even give her name. People in the stores she visited were not told in advance she would be there.

It was a curious display of self-effacement for a freshman lawmaker gearing up for what is sure to be one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country next year. But it was right in line with the low-key style Davids has developed in her first few months in office.

Wearing a brown uniform, her distinctive dark hair pulled back under a visor, Davids asked for signatures for deliveries and checked the spelling of names as cameras clicked behind her. If anyone looked confused, she flashed a sheepish grin.

“My first day,” she joked, more than once. When a man waiting to see an optometrist said she looked familiar, she ran out the door while he was still trying to place her.

“This is like ‘Undercover Boss,’” she quipped.

Later, she said it hadn’t occurred to her to tell people who she was. At any rate, it would interfere with the UPS workers she wanted to observe. “I didn’t want to slow down their day,” she said.

Davids shot to prominence with a biography that encapsulated the mood of a Democratic Party eager to display a new era of youth and diversity: Not only is the 39-year-old gay and Native American, she is also an MMA fighter whose campaign commercials showed off her skills with a punching bag.

Since coming to the House, she has avoided the attention showered on other ground-breaking freshmen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to whom she was frequently compared during her campaign. Instead, like other newcomers from swing districts, she has tried to stay hyper-focused on local issues and constituent services.

Strategy: Be boring

As a result, local political observers sat Davids is getting a completely unexpected reputation — for being a little boring. And that might actually be a good strategy if she wants to keep her seat in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats.

“She is portraying herself as somebody who’s putting her head down and working on policy, as compared to the other members of Congress that [President Donald] Trump has taken notice of, who get a lot of attention and may say things that cause havoc,” said Bob Beatty, chairman of the political science department at Washburn University in Topeka.

“That’s not going to stop the opposition from running a campaign saying she’s part of this radical segment of the party. But it does give her credibility to be able to run ads that say, ‘I’m independent. I’m my own person. And here’s what I’ve done for the district,’” he said.

Davids was appointed to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which might not guarantee national media fame, but is important to a region crisscrossed by major interstates and train lines. She co-sponsored a bill that was championed by her Republican predecessor.

She has said she can’t commit to signature progressive policy proposals such as the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All,” moves that prompted protests from progressive constituents at her district offices. She has also resisted pressure to call for Trump’s impeachment.

Friction with the more liberal faction of her party was on display in July, when she was drawn into a spat between progressives and House leadership over an emergency border funding bill. In a tweet that infuriated House Democratic leaders, Saikat Chakrabarti, then Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, singled out Davids for siding with moderates in the dispute. 

“I don’t believe Sharice is a racist person,” he  tweeted. “But her votes are showing her to enable a racist system.”

Chakrabarti later resigned.

Double-digit swing

Democrats see Davids’ district as typical of the high-income, educated suburbs where moderate voters, disaffected by Trump, delivered the party’s House majority last fall.

The district was represented by moderate Democrat Dennis Moore for a decade until his retirement in 2010. After that, Republicans won every congressional race in the state by double digits — until Davids beat 3rd District Rep. Kevin Yoder by 10 points in November.

Yoder had been endorsed by Trump, an association the lawmaker later told The Kansas City Star editorial board that hurt him. 

“The president’s message and style fall flat with suburban voters, particularly suburban women,” Yoder said.

Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the 3rd District by a point in 2016 — a big turnaround from four years earlier, when Republican Mitt Romney won it by 10 points over President Barack Obama

And there were other factors at play as well. Democrats in 2018 were energized by the unpopularity of former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, whose deep budget cuts had plunged the state into a fiscal crisis. Davids was one of two Kansas Democrats who won critical elections after years of GOP dominance in the state. In the governor’s race, Laura Kelly beat Trump-endorsed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, winning in several counties the president carried in 2016. That included Johnson County, in the heart of the 3rd District, where Kelly won by 17 points last cycle.

Democrats are hoping that momentum will carry through 2020, when Trump will be at the top of the ticket, and Kobach could be running for the Senate.

Republicans are eager to win the district back, however. Davids’ seat was among the first targets set by the National Republican Congressional Committee in February.

The race has already attracted the attention of two prominent Republican women, mirroring a trend in other so-called purple districts across the country where the GOP has recruited women and minorities to woo back moderate voters.

Likely GOP primary

Sara Hart Weir, 37, the former president of the National Down Syndrome Society, announced her campaign in July. She is touting her experience running a multimillion-dollar organizing effort and lobbying Congress for people with disabilities. That background could help her if, as in 2018, health care becomes a key issue in the race.

UNITED STATES - JULY 2: Sara Hart Weir, Republican candidate for Kansas's 3rd Congressional District, is photographed in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Photo By Stephanie Akin/CQ Roll Call)
Sara Hart Weir is seeking the Republican nomination in Kansas’s 3rd District. (Stephanie Akin/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It also gave her powerful friends in the GOP. Weir said when she decided to explore a run, one of the first people she called was Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who was the highest-ranking woman in the GOP until last year. Weir had worked with McMorris Rodgers, whose son Cole has Down syndrome, to pass legislation to promote tax-free savings accounts for people with disabilities. That effort also put her in contact with former Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who represented the state’s 2nd District for almost a decade. Jenkins is advising Weir’s campaign.

Weir declined to comment about Davids’ record so far, saying she was just a better representative for the district.

“I’ve represented a segment of the population that is often forgotten,” she told CQ Roll Call. “Over the years, we’ve made people with Down syndrome and other disabilities matter.”

Weir is likely to face a primary challenge from Amanda Adkins, a former state Republican Party chairwoman who filed a declaration of her candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission on Friday but has not officially launched a campaign. Adkins declined a request to talk about her intentions.

Democrats said a primary campaign between the two women could force them to move too far right for a general election matchup with Davids.

Republicans, meanwhile, are watching Davids’ voting record for signs that she is out of sync with conservative voters at home.

“She’s probably too far left to hold on to that seat in Kansas,” the state’s GOP chairman, Mike Kuckelman, said in an interview. “Kansas is a pretty conservative state.”

So far, though, Davids has avoided providing ammunition to her opponents.

Beatty, of Washburn University, recalled a typical soundbite, when Davids gave a speech shortly after the election.

“They played music, and they pumped her up and said, ‘The superstar of Kansas politics,’” he said. “And she came on and said, ‘Actually, I’m really a bit of a policy nerd, and this may be really boring for you.’”

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