Republican campaign officials are sending strong signals they’re abandoning Rep. Kevin Yoder, one of Kansas’ most powerful House members who’s struggling to survive against a well-funded Democrat.
This inching away from the four-term incumbent comes in a state that’s usually safe turf for Republicans. This year, with control of the House in play, the GOP needs the state as much as ever.
Republicans have won every congressional race in Kansas by double digits since 2010, the year Yoder was first elected as part of a GOP wave that reflected suburban voters’ frustration at then-President Barack Obama.
Yet today, Yoder is at risk of being swept out of office because anger at President Donald Trump is elevating his Democratic challenger Sharice Davids.
Kansas hasn’t gone for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964 and Trump won the state by more than 20 points, but Democrat Hillary Clinton narrowly won Yoder’s district in 2016.
Yoder’s woes come at a time when the party is also facing a tossup race in the adjacent 2nd congressional district, which is now represented by a Republican. Losing either of these races in the reliably Republican state could doom the GOP’s chances of maintaining control of the U.S. House.
“I think Republicans might be able to maintain control by losing one seat (in Kansas). If they lose both, I don’t see what their path is,” said Nathan Gonzales, a Washington-based nonpartisan political analyst. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats nationwide to gain control of the House.
Davids, a first-time candidate, outraised Yoder from July to September, raking in more than $2.7 million during a period when the incumbent Republican took in $1.1 million.
Davids’ fundraising numbers come at a time when the National Republican Congressional Committee announced Sunday that it was canceling a more than $1 million ad buy in the Kansas City market that had been intended to boost Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, during the final five weeks of his race.
The decision is striking not only because of Kansas’ stature in GOP ranks, but because of Yoder’s status as a powerful member of the House Republican team. He’s chairman of the panel that decides on homeland security spending, and a member of the GOP leadership team.
And the NRCC had been touting its plan to spend in the district only weeks before pulling the money.
Yoder’s campaign said Sunday that NRCC chairman Steve Stivers had personally assured Yoder of the party committee’s support and the party committee also said it remains committed to the race, promising a coordinated ad buy in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district.
But the coordinated buy — which means it will be co-financed by Yoder’s campaign — will cost $95,000, a fraction of the original sum the party committee the more than $1 million had planned to steer toward Yoder’s race.
Yoder’s consultant Travis Smith voiced frustration with the way the NRCC had handled the spending decisions, which has helped fuel new doubts about Yoder’s strength this election cycle.
“These D.C. groups shuffle money and responsibilities around all the time, that’s not really news. But in this case it seems they could’ve handled it with a bit more finesse, and avoided some unneeded drama,” Smith said in an email.
Gonzales, who edits and publishes Inside Elections, said that party committees pull money when they think a candidate is likely to win or lose regardless of their spending.
Gonzales, who rates the race as leaning toward the Democrat, said he doubts the NRCC dropped the ad buy because it was confident in Yoder’s chances.
Smith said that party committees choose to pull money from a race for a host of reasons, including a weak campaign team, lackluster funding, a strong opponent or “polling showing you down with an insurmountable hill to climb.”
However, he disputed the notion that Yoder’s campaign was suffering from any of these problems.
“Yoder truly has built the most prolific ground game in the country this cycle for a House race,” Smith said in an email. He said the campaign has knocked on more than 125,000 doors in the district and made nearly half a million phone calls.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican PAC which is separate from the NRCC, said that it plans to remain on the air through Election Day. The PAC has already spent nearly $2 million on the race primarily on ads attacking Davids.
Yoder trailed Davids by 8 percentage points in a New York Times and Siena College poll, which was conducted late last month, and trailed Davids by 6 percentage points in a poll from Emerson College, which was conducted last week.
Smith said Yoder’s internal numbers are stronger than the public polls, sharing a survey by his firm Remington Research Group that shows Yoder leading Davids 43 to 40 percent in a survey of 610 likely voters that was conducted between Sept. 18 and 20. The lead is within the margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
But even the internal survey showed that a slightly larger percentage of voters, 42 percent, had an unfavorable view of Yoder compared to the 38 percent with a favorable view.
The decision to rely on negative messaging about Davids instead of highlighting positive reasons to vote for Yoder has hampered his campaign with moderate voters, argued Stephanie Sharp, a Johnson County-based consultant who works with moderate Republicans.
“The environment right now is ‘Anybody but Kevin, anybody but Republicans,’ because that’s the cool thing to be right now… because our party hasn’t done a good job of building a tent,” said Sharp, a former state lawmaker who served with Yoder in the Kansas House.
Trump will be in Topeka Saturday to campaign for congressional candidate Steve Watkins and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the party’s nominee for governor who many Republicans say has been a drag on Yoder.
Neither Yoder’s campaign, nor the Kansas Republican Party have said whether Yoder plans to attend the Topeka rally, which is an hour’s drive from his home in Overland Park and marks Trump’s first visit to the state since becoming president.
Sharp said Yoder should skip the event.
“The whole nation is talking about my demographic – suburban moms – and how we’re disgusted with the president’s attitude and I think he does have to distance himself a little bit,” Sharp said.
“If I were him I wouldn’t go. It’s not in his district, it’s in Topeka. And he’s got a lot of work to do here.”