Progressives set to test appeal of prairie populism in Kansas primary

Progressives set to test appeal of prairie populism in Kansas primary
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A Kansas primary on Tuesday will shine a spotlight on whether progressive Democrats can gain a must-win district in November or whether they are too far to the left to win in America’s heartland.

National Democrats have recruited more centrist candidates for many of the tougher swing seats. But progressive candidates have also been seeking to gain traction in more key GOP-leaning seats, riding the momentum from Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Ben & Jerry’s co-founders announce effort to help 7 Dem House challengers Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states MORE (I-Vt.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a stunning primary upset over a longtime New York incumbent.

Six candidates are looking to take on Rep. Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderMother used in ad attacking Kansas Dem candidate is state GOP official To save asylum seekers we must save our immigration courts GOP super PAC hits Dem House hopeful as 'Pelosi liberal' in new Kansas ad MORE, a Republican who has represented Kansas’s 3rd District since 2011. The district has a history of going for both Democrats and Republicans, voting for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGraham: There's a 'bureaucratic coup' taking place against Trump Fox News poll shows Dems with edge ahead of midterms Poll: Democrats in position to retake the House MORE by a single point in 2016, but also voting for John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ MORE and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMaher makes million donation to Democratic Senate super PAC Poll: House GOP candidate leads in California swing district Super PACs spend big in high-stakes midterms MORE by significant margins in 2008 and 2012.

Labor attorney Brent Welder has gotten the most attention nationally, after earning endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, both of whom appeared with the candidate in a campaign rally last month.

Welder has carved out a lane in the primary as a fervent backer of progressive policies, including a single-payer health-care system, or “Medicare for all,” a hike in the minimum wage to $15, and a pledge not to accept corporate PAC money.

These are the same issues that helped catapult Ocasio-Cortez to her win in blue-state New York — and Welder and his backers believe that the liberal agenda will resonate equally in Queens as in Kansas's 3rd District.

“Whether you live in Kansas or Vermont or New York City, you want your children to have a decent life,” Sanders said at last month’s rally. “And yes, we have differences. But despite these huge differences, we have a hell of a lot more in common.”

Welder, a former Obama campaign staffer and delegate to Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, has gained momentum since appearing with Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, raising about $110,000 in the week since the late July rally.

But the race is seen as wide open, with Welder facing two well-funded — and equally progressive — challengers in attorney and former MMA fighter Sharice Davids and high school teacher Tom Niermann.

Polling has been scant, but a recent Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a national progressive group that endorsed Welder, shows the labor lawyer ahead with 35 percent, followed by Davids at 21 percent and Niermann at 15 percent.

Davids, in particular, is seen as a top-tier contender, thanks to a compelling biography and résumé. She’s openly gay and worked as a former White House fellow. And if elected, she would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress.

EMILY’s List, a group that aims to elect Democratic women to office, has endorsed Davids and the group’s super PAC has spent more than $600,000 on TV and digital ads boosting her.

Davids has defined herself as a progressive who supports "Medicare for all," but has said she wants to consider other solutions that could more quickly expand health-care coverage.

“Certainly I’m progressive — I’ve been making progress my entire life,” Davids said during a call with reporters last week that had been arranged by EMILY’s List.

“When I think about the monicker of most progressive or not, that’s not actually … the way I think about this. What I’m focusing [on] is making sure I’m connecting with as many people as possible.”

Meanwhile, Niermann, another leading Democratic candidate and top fundraiser, is seeking to appeal to more moderate voters who have backed both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates — though he is also considered a pretty progressive candidate.

He has made education and gun safety the centerpieces of his campaign, issues that have resonance in a state where education has been deeply affected by tax cuts from former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

Niermann has been a prolific fundraiser, collecting about $723,000, compared to Welder’s nearly $678,000, and the high school teacher also holds a $17,000 cash-on-hand advantage — though that is still far below the $1.8 million that Yoder has in the bank.

Some political observers in Kansas question whether the Democratic candidates are too far to the left for the district, arguing that they’ll likely need to pivot to the center in the fall. Most voters in Kansas's 3rd hail from Johnson County, which is the more affluent part of the district. Wyandotte County, where Welder’s campaign is based, is more diverse.

“The question with Welder and Sharice [Davids], is it a bridge to far for this district?” said Burdett Loomis, who served in former Democratic Gov. Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusProgressives set to test appeal of prairie populism in Kansas primary Overcoming health-care challenges by moving from volume to value Mr. President, let markets help save Medicare MORE’s administration and who currently teaches at the University of Kansas.

“I’m fascinated to see what either general election campaign looks like. You’d think both would have to go towards the middle.”

Republicans have already started shaping their line of attack. An ad from the nonprofit group Ending Spending, which is largely bankrolled by conservative billionaire Joe Ricketts, paints Welder as “too progressive for Kansas.”

But Democrats, including Welder allies, are pushing back against the narrative that a liberal agenda would lose in a district with a redder shade.

They believe that a path to victory in the general election will involve winning over those crossover voters in the suburbs, primarily women, who are turned off by President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE, whose national approval rating sits around the low 40s.

And these Democrats say a path to victory involves drawing a sharp contrast to Yoder, a Trump ally who backed the GOP’s tax plan and authored a bill that would secure $5 billion for Trump’s border wall.

“I think prairie populism is a real thing and I think people are waking up to it,” a Welder ally told The Hill.

“People are looking for a real choice in this election — running as a Republican-lite or parroting Kevin Yoder talking points is not the way to beat him. The way you do beat someone like Kevin Yoder is by taking real bold stances.”