Congress

Former Sebelius speechwriter launches 2020 campaign for Congress in Kansas

Steve Watkins wins Kansas 2nd District: ‘I’m not an outsider anymore’

Steve Watkins thanks supporters after defeating Paul Davis to win the Kansas 2nd Congressional District seat Tuesday.
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Steve Watkins thanks supporters after defeating Paul Davis to win the Kansas 2nd Congressional District seat Tuesday.

A former legislative staffer who spoke out about the treatment of women at the Kansas Capitol will officially launch a campaign for Congress Tuesday morning.

Democrat Abbie Hodgson will seek the party’s nomination to challenge freshman GOP Rep. Steve Watkins in Kansas’ 2nd congressional district, which includes Lawrence, Topeka and Leavenworth.

A former Kansas House Democratic staffer, Hodgson made headlines in 2017 when she criticized the treatment of women in the statehouse and revealed that lawmakers relied on underage interns as designated drivers following lobbyist-hosted cocktail hours.

Her disclosures, during the early days of “Me-Too” movement, spurred efforts to reform the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies.

Hodgson, 37, said gender issues remain important to her, but that her campaign will focus on health care, agriculture, trade policy and the financial well-being of Kansans.

“When I talk to voters when I walk down Kansas main streets you don’t get that sense of optimism from people,” she said. “They don’t feel like they have enough money in their savings accounts to weather a crisis.”

Hodgson called Trump’s trade war unsustainable for Kansas farmers. She said that trade, an issue long seen as a strength for Republicans, can help Democrats win in 2020.

On health care, Hodgson wants to focus on policies to bring the cost of care down. She is open to supporting a public option, but is skeptical of “Medicare-for-all” proposals that would eliminate private insurance.

“As I talk to Kansans, a lot of them really like their doctor and they want to keep their insurance,” she said.

The 5th generation Kansan has spent the last two years in Washington working for Pew Charitable Trusts, but she’s moved back to Lawrence and will be stepping down from her position with Pew’s State Strategy Group to pursue the seat.

“I have always been someone who has been behind the scenes. Running for Congress wasn’t in my life plan,” said Hodgson, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Kansas House in 2014.

Watkins, 42, a Topeka Republican, narrowly beat a better-funded Democrat, former gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis, last year.

The 2nd has not gone for a Democrat since 2006 and is not currently considered a 2020 target for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But Hodgson said she is optimistic she can flip the seat.

“Kansas really does have a history of voting for Democratic women,” said Hodgson, who began her political career as a speechwriter for former Democratic. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

She praised Sebelius’ pragmatism and regards her as a role model.

“I do look at her as an icon,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to speak for her, but she was very encouraging.”

Before launching her campaign, Hodgson met with EMILY’s List, a national group dedicated to electing Democratic women. It played a crucial role in Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids’ victory in the adjacent 3rd congressional district.

The organization hasn’t made an endorsement yet, but it is targeting the seat and applauded Hodgson’s entry into the race.

“Kansas’ second district race was one of the closest in the country in 2018, and we’re excited to see a strong candidate like Abbie Hodgson step up and take it on,” said Benjamin Ray, spokesman for EMILY’s List.

Watkins’ spokesman Jim Joice panned Hodgson’s candidacy and the involvement of EMILY’s List in the district.

“EMILY’s List and the coastal elites have been searching for a candidate to promote their out-of-touch radical agenda, and it should come as no surprise they landed on a Washington, D.C. operative. The people of Kansas’ Second Congressional district have repeatedly rejected this radical agenda and will do so again in 2020,” Joice said in an email.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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