With three close races in Kansas, outcomes may be a matter of chance

photo by: Associated Press

From left, Kansas governor candidates Greg Orman, Laura Kelly and Kris Kobach are pictured in file photos from August 2018.

TOPEKA – For the first time in many years, the reliably Republican state of Kansas has three major races on the ballot, all with national implications, that could swing either way on Tuesday.

The race for governor and the 2nd District congressional race in eastern Kansas are both rated toss-ups by a number of nonpartisan handicapping websites, while the 3rd District congressional race in suburban Kansas City is rated by some as tilting Democratic.

For Kansas Democrats, this year’s elections offer a long-awaited opportunity to become a truly competitive party once again.

But Republicans can’t be counted out of any of those races either, and they have gone to great lengths, even bringing President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and other GOP superstars to Kansas to campaign on their behalf, to hold onto their dominance in state elections.

Many observers believe there are two factors that will be key in deciding the races: former Gov. Sam Brownback and President Donald Trump.

Brownback left office in January with one of the lowest approval ratings of any sitting governor after presiding over a fiscal crisis that was brought on largely by his controversial tax policies. A backlash against his policies sparked a resurgence in 2016 of Democrats and moderate Republicans who came into office the following year and reversed those policies.

Trump, meanwhile, carried Kansas in 2016, but by a much smaller margin than most Republican presidential candidates in recent years. And he even lost by a narrow margin in the 3rd Congressional District, where some say Democrats have their best chance of taking a Republican seat.

Emporia State University political science professor Michael Smith says the closeness of those three races could be a sign of a significant realignment of political parties in Kansas.

“Only time will tell, but I think in certain parts of the state there’s a real realignment going on, and the place I would focus on the most is northeast Johnson County,” Smith said in an interview.

“I think that Johnson County within the I-435-U.S. 69 loop is probably going blue more long-term, which aligns with the tendency in 2016 that was quite noticeable,” he said. “College-educated professionals are no longer Republicans. They are realigning more and more as Democrats. And I think that may be a sustainable trend.”

While public opinion polls show the races to be very close, it should be noted that polls are not predictors of an outcome. They are only snapshots of people’s opinions at the time the polls are taken.

Polls are also based on sampling of the population that the pollster believes will turn out to vote. But those models are sometimes wrong.

For example, a recent New York Times-Siena Colllege poll in the 2nd District showed Democrat Paul Davis leading Republican Steve Watkins, 41 percent to 37 percent, a four-point spread, with 15 percent still undecided at the time.

Another poll in the 3rd District showed Democrat Sharice Davids leading Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder, 48 percent to 39 percent, a nine-point spread, with 11 percent undecided.

But depending on what turnout model is used, the Times said Davis could be up by as many as six points or as few as three, while Davids could be ahead by as many as 14 or as few as six.

The latest public poll in the governor’s race, from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, showed Democrat Laura Kelly and Republican Kris Kobach tied at 41 percent each, with independent candidate Greg Orman trailing with 10 percent. But that poll also was based on a model of who the polling firm thinks is likely to turn out.

With that in mind, here are some of the variables that could affect the outcome of any, or all, of the close races.

The weather: It’s November in Kansas, which means anything can happen. The conventional wisdom is that people turn out more in nice weather, but tend to stay home when it’s cold, rainy or snowing outside.

For what it’s worth, the National Weather Service predicts that it will be mostly sunny with a high near 55 in Douglas County on Tuesday.

Youth turnout: In 1971, the United States ratified the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18. Turnout rates were high among the 18-22 age group in the first couple of presidential elections after that, but they have generally been on a downward trend since then. Young voters now have the lowest turnout rate of any age group in the United States.

That may change this year, or it may not. State officials say there was a surge in voter registration among that group this year that was likely a response to the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Whether or not those young voters are still motivated nearly eight months later remains an open question, but Smith said he has seen more political engagement among students on the ESU campus.

“Also, a lot of young women are not happy about the Kavanaugh hearing,” he said, referring to the Senate confirmation hearings last month of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said last week that voters ages 18-20 had accounted for about 9 percent of all the advance ballots that had been turned in at the time, roughly double the normal rate. But he said it was too early to tell if that meant more young people would vote in this election, or if it just means that advance voting has become more popular with them, just as it has become more popular across the board.

University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said he also isn’t sure whether youth voting will be up this year.

“I don’t see a lot of political engagement, and I generally don’t think we’re a very politically active campus,” Miller said in an email. “I’m hoping turnout is up, but the proof will be in the pudding to me.”

Suburban turnout: This will be especially important in the 3rd Congressional District. That’s because Trump polls weakly among upper-income, highly educated suburban women. Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder has been a close ally of Trump, and Democrats have been using that to lure that bloc of voters to support Democrat Sharice Davids, who now has a slight lead in most polls.

It could also be important in the governor’s race because Republican candidate Kris Kobach is also a strong ally of Trump’s. But Democratic candidate Laura Kelly has spent more energy trying to equate Kobach with Brownback. Still, if the anti-Trump suburbanites in Johnson County turn out in big numbers, Kelly is likely to benefit from that.

The rural vote: The rural vote, particularly in western Kansas, has been one of the GOP’s strongest bases of support for years. This year, though, two key rural groups, political action committees tied to the Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association, both stayed out of the governor’s race. KFB’s PAC also did not endorse in the 2nd Congressional District, although KLA’s PAC did endorse Watkins.

Smith said those groups’ silence may send a signal to rural voters that there’s no advantage in voting Republican in the governor’s race. On the other hand, he said, Kobach has been campaigning on conservative social issues like immigration that may have more appeal to Republican voters than the traditional Farm Bureau agricultural issues like water policy.


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