Politics & Government

Kansas Democrats accuse Yoder, dark money group of meddling in primary

“We don’t need more Obama-Sanders progressives.”

That’s a line in a new ad branding Democratic congressional candidate Brent Welder as “too progressive for Kansas” — an ad paid for by a dark-money nonprofit tied to billionaire Joe Ricketts, whose group Ending Spending has spent about $2 million this election cycle backing Republicans.

The ad began airing Friday in the Kansas City area, just days before a six-way, too-close-to-call Democratic primary in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district, where Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas is fighting to hang on for a fifth term.

Two of Welder’s Democratic opponents on Friday accused Yoder and Ricketts of meddling in their party’s primary by trying to boost a candidate who would be easier for Yoder to beat in November.

The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will battle Yoder in a district where Democrat Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Donald Trump in 2016.

“(Yoder) has now gone yet another bridge too far — calling in Republican dark money to elevate an opponent of his choosing, rather than answer to his constituents for his egregious votes,” said Democratic candidates Sharice Davids and Tom Niermann in a joint statement Friday.

“We condemn Republicans’ undemocratic meddling in the Democratic primary, and urge Third District voters not to fall for Kevin Yoder’s continued schemes.”

Welder’s campaign manager, Shawn Borich, shot back, “It’s disappointing that after months of clean campaigning, our Democratic opponents have decided to side with a Wall Street dark money PAC to pile on against Brent Welder, who has tremendous momentum in his campaign against Kevin Yoder.”

Ricketts is the founder of Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC that “supports political candidates who understand the importance of a balanced budget.” His son, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, was named finance chair of the Republican National Committee in January.

The Ricketts family has donated millions to Republican candidates and groups in recent years.

It was the Ending Spending Action Fund’s affiliated nonprofit, Ending Spending Inc., which paid $160,000 for broadcast and cable air time in Kansas City starting on Friday to air the Welder ad.

Under federal law, the nonprofit doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

The ad that Kansas City area residents started seeing Friday at first appears to be a pro-Welder ad.

It shows images of the Democratic labor lawyer on the campaign trail while an upbeat female narrator calls him a progressive and a community organizer, as well as “friend of Barack Obama and ally of Bernie Sanders,” the Democratic socialist who has endorsed Welder.

Only in the last 10 seconds of the 30-second ad does it become apparent that it’s an anti-Welder spot, as the narrator says, “we don’t need more Obama-Sanders progressives. Brent Welder: too progressive for Kansas.”

Borich said in a statement that his candidate is the only Democrat beating Yoder in public polling and has raised more money than other Democratic challengers.

“Brent is proud to have worked for President Barack Obama who took on the Wall Street bankers behind this Super PAC,” Borich said.

The TV commercial featuring Welder follows a Facebook ad by Yoder’s campaign that also singled out Welder by name. That ad, which Kansas Democrats said they saw in their social media feeds, highlighted a visit to Kansas by Sanders and Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to campaign for Welder and appeared over the phrase, in all caps: “Progressive liberals back Brent Welder.”

“They’re here to advocate for open borders, kicking 168 million Americans off private health insurance and onto government programs, and doubling your taxes to pay for it,” the ad said, over photos of Welder, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. “Sign the petition today if you agree they’re too extreme for Kansas.”

Yoder’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

To Welder’s rivals, the tactic seemed clear. Yoder was trying to boost Welder’s name among Democratic voters.

“He wants to raise the profile of the candidate he’d prefer to run against,” said Kristen Hernandez, campaign communications manager at EMILY’s List, which has endorsed Democrat Davids in the race.

“From a political strategy perspective, it’s a strategy we’ve seen before with Todd Akin and Claire McCaskill, so it would make sense if that were the case.”

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Niermann called on voters “to not fall for Kevin Yoder’s continued schemes.”

Yoder, Niermann said, “has voted in the interests of his supporting leaders rather than the interests of his community and I suppose he’s always thought there would be billionaires there to bail him out whenever he faced a tough challenge like he is facing now.”

“But in this instance I think he has gone too far,” Niermann said. “He has called dark money to manipulate this election, he has called in dark money to elevate one of his opponents, and this is a clear meddling of this election process.”

The idea of meddling in the other party’s primary is usually easier said than done, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns for Senate, House, governor and president.

But a Facebook ad such as the one Yoder’s campaign posted is inexpensive and could serve multiple purposes.

“If it doesn’t cost a lot of money and you think it will fund impact your general election, there’s usually no harm in trying,” Gonzales said.

“At a minimum, Yoder can generate excitement among his voters and try to organize that way,” he said. “His supporters may not have heard of Sharice Davids or Tom Niermann or even Brent Welder, but they know who Bernie Sanders is and they know who Ocasio-Cortez is now.”

The other reason for a Republican ad to name Welder but not other Democratic candidates could be to help Yoder start defining his opponent before the general election, Gonzales said. Yoder also could be trying to engage the Republican base by pointing out a liberal opponent, he said.

A high-profile example of a candidate trying to influence the other party’s primary occurred across the state line in Missouri in 2012.

In her memoir after the election, McCaskill admitted that she wanted to run against then-Republican congressman Akin and took deliberate steps to boost him as in the Republican primary.

“Some people call it McCaskilling because she wasn’t the first to do it, but it was very prominent in her campaign,” said Patrick Miller, political science professor at the University of Kansas.

“Basically the strategy is when there’s a primary on the other side and there is an opponent who you would prefer to face in the general election, you attack that person on grounds that would appeal to the base of the other party — so essentially you are playing them up in a way that would appeal to the other party’s primary voters,” he said.

In McCaskill’s case, she attacked Akin for being “too conservative” — a trait Republican primary voters saw as a positive, Miller said.

Akin ended up winning the GOP primary in 2012. But McCaskill went on the beat him in the general election after Akin made the remark that victims of “legitimate rape” could avoid pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The Star’s Lauren Fox contributed to this article.
Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise