Paul Davis still a star in eyes of Kansas Democrats

? Paul Davis milled about the Wichita Mariott Hotel on Saturday, shaking hands and chatting with old friends at the Kansas Democratic Party’s annual DemoFest convention.

But he wasn’t in the meeting room where two party strategists were describing polling numbers that suggest he could be a viable candidate for Congress next year against Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins in the Second District.

“In District 2, there is one name as a Democrat that polls a win,” said Chris Reeves, of Smoky Hills Strategies and a Daily Kos blogger. “Anybody want to take a guess? In a match-up with Lynn Jenkins, Paul Davis is ahead 44-42 (percent). The next nearest Democrat on the list hits at about 26.”

Told later about that statement, Davis shrugged it off with a laugh. “Not very likely,” he said of a congressional run.

Paul Davis of Lawrence, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor in 2014, is still popular in the party, but he says he has no immediate plans of running for another office.

Davis, a former state representative from Lawrence, has kept a fairly low profile since his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2014. Still, his name comes up almost constantly whenever other Democrats get together and speculate about potential candidates in 2016 and beyond.

Some think he should try again for governor in 2018, when Republican Gov. Sam Brownback will be term-limited out of office. But Davis said he currently has no plans to run for anything, although he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of re-entering politics at some point in the future.

“I’m not saying that I wouldn’t run for office again. I might be interested in that. But I don’t plan on doing it right now,” Davis said.

Reflecting on 2014 race

During an interview with the Journal-World, Davis reflected on the 2014 race in which he led in public opinion polls throughout most of the campaign but was ultimately eclipsed by Brownback in the final weeks, losing by some 32,000 votes.

“You know, I feel very good about the campaign that we ran, and sure, there were some things that we didn’t do quite as well as we needed to,” he said. “We had some very good organizations in some parts of the state, and in other parts of the state we didn’t have as strong of an organization as we needed to have.”

“But you know it was a tough year to be on the ballot as a Democrat, not just in Kansas but all across the country, and I think that certainly factored into what was going on,” he said.

One criticism that often comes up, and was the subject of much discussion at the convention, was the almost exclusive focus that his campaign and the Democratic Party put on the issue of public school funding, while shying away from other issues important to the party’s base — issues such as Medicaid expansion and repealing the Brownback tax cuts of 2012 and 2013.

“The main reason I talked about education so much is that that’s the most important issue to me, and it’s always been,” Davis said. “And I think that’s also where a governor can really have the most impact.”

That issue had worked well for the last Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, who made school funding a central point in both her 2002 and 2006 campaigns. But Davis conceded that education alone wasn’t enough in 2014 to get above the 50 percent mark.

“Clearly there were a lot of voters that were motivated by that issue, but it wasn’t universal, and it isn’t universal,” he said. “And so you do have to be able to talk to voters on a variety of different issues. There are health care voters; there are economy voters; there are education voters; and there are tax voters. You’ve got to be able to talk with all of them.”

Party divisions

The selection of issues, and the way the Kansas Democratic Party goes about trying to sell its agenda, has been a source of extreme tension within the party for several months.

And it boiled to the surface just before the DemoFest convention, when party chairman Larry Meeker was forced to resign Friday, just as the convention was getting underway, over press statements he’d made about how the party needs to appeal more to moderate Republicans.

He went so far as to say that Kansas Democrats could pass as moderate Republicans in other states, and that there are people in the party both for and against abortion rights and marriage equality for same-sex couples, two key planks in the party’s platform.

Down the hall from where Davis sat for the interview, Reeves and Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas and chairman of the party’s Progressive Caucus, were urging fellow Democrats to be more forceful in advocating for liberal causes such as raising the state’s minimum wage, lowering the sales tax on food and reinstating the renewable energy standards on utility companies that Republicans repealed during the 2015 legislative session.

“We want to own these issues,” Reeves said. “We know that Republicans know the sales tax is too high. They know it’s unpopular. Republicans took that out of the budget this year so that they can introduce it next year and say, ‘See, in an election year we lowered taxes. I’m saying beat them to the punch. Start calling for this as a social justice issue before we even get to Thanksgiving.”

But Davis said the choice between pushing a Democratic agenda and reaching out to moderate Republicans “is not an either-or question.”

“I think you have to be able to attract Republican voters if you want to win in Kansas. That’s a fact,” he said. “But at the same time, you also have to energize Democratic voters. You have to be able to get them out to the polls. So it’s really something that I think any Democratic candidate, and the party, has to be able to do both.”