If you are not from Kansas, you might be surprised to find out that Native American, lesbian, female, mixed martial arts fighters with Ivy League law degrees are exceptionally rare in that part of the world.
Well, maybe you’re not surprised; they are exceptionally rare everywhere! A candidate for political office with this background would likely stand out anywhere in this country.
But, words cannot describe exactly how strange it is in Kansas.
Yet, here is Sharice Davids, who is indeed a Native American, lesbian, female, mixed martial arts fighter with an Ivy League law degree.
And, the strangest thing about her candidacy?
She appears to be winning– as a Democrat in a state that almost always elects Republicans.
A Compelling Candidate
Sharice Davids is a compelling candidate for a number of reasons. Sure, her background is unusual. But, she has demonstrated impressive political skills for someone who has never run for elected office. She has carefully calibrated her campaign to offset almost every perceived electoral weakness with an unconventional strength.
The result is that Davids stands a very good chance of unseating the incumbent Republican Congressman, Kevin Yoder who is seeking his 5th term. Yoder has won his prior races by an average of almost 20%.
But, public polling has consistently shown Davids with the lead. A recent New York Times/ Sienna College survey shows her with nearly a 10% lead over Yoder. Most political rating agencies predict that she will win in November.
A Referendum on the Country’s Direction
Singling out one race as symbolic of the country’s direction might seem sensational. With elections for hundreds of officials taking place this fall, one representative from Kansas is not going to change the country’s trajectory. But, this race is significant in so many ways that it is possible to argue that the race in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional district is such a referendum.
Non-traditional candidates like New York’s own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have attracted national attention this year for good reason. For the first time, white men constitute a minority of the Democratic Party’s congressional candidates. A record number of women will appear on ballots across the country this fall. And many are young, ethnic minorities motivated by the desire to fight back against Trump’s racist, misogynist, and xenophobic rhetoric and policies.
Davids embodies this movement in many ways. Surveying the field of candidates running to represent the place she has called home for most of her life, she realized that there was nobody like her. Her conclusion?
“We need more people who look like the rest of the country to be running for office.”
Like many unconventional candidates, Davids realizes the importance of confronting those in power as they attempt to marginalize anyone who does not fit their definition of a “normal American.”
“Trump and the Republicans in Washington don’t give a damn about anyone like me or anyone that doesn’t think like them. That’s why I’m running for Congress.”
Sharice Davids, Democratic candidate for Congress in Kansas 3rd Congressional District
What’s The Matter With Kansas?
Kansas is not really the place to look for people who look like the rest of America. The state is largely white, pretty rural, and very conservative. Kansas is a solidly Republican state, only occasionally electing a Democrat to statewide office.
The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Kansas was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, an election in which he carried 44 out of 50 states. Barack Obama was only the 2nd Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to get even 40% of the vote and his mother was born and raised in Kansas.
Kansas has not elected a Democrat to the United States Senate since the Great Depression. Trump won statewide in 2016 by over 20% of the vote, while losing the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton, reinforcing just how politically conservative Kansas is compared to the rest of the country. Republicans have held all 4 of Kansas’ seats in the House of Representatives since 2010.
Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District
Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District is a little different than the rest of the state, however. The district includes two of the state’s three largest cities and the largest county. This district is easily the most densely populated of Kansas’ four congressional districts. Kansas City, Kansas (the little sister to its more populous neighbor Kansas City, Missouri) has a sizeable minority population and typically supports Democratic candidates.
But, elections in Kansas’ 3rd are usually won and lost in Johnson County. Johnson County is wealthy. The median household income is over $80,000 compared to around $55,000, nationally. The poverty rate is just over 5% compared to 14%, nationally.
Johnson County residents are better educated than the country as a whole. The public schools in the country are not just the best in the state but rank among the best in the country. The percentage of the adult population with a college degree is almost double the national average with over 50% of adults having earned at least a bachelor’s degree.
One of the most progressive characteristics of Kansas’ 3rd Congressional district is that it is considerably more tolerant on social issues than other parts of Kansas and relatively more tolerant than the country as a whole. To be sure, this is a district that will usually vote Republican. Relative to the US as a whole, it is whiter and wealthier and more religious than the average congressional district.
Donald Trump is Not Popular in Kansas’ 3rd District
Donald Trump is not popular in this district. Yoder is one of 25 Republicans across the country that represent districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Steve Rose, a moderate Republican and columnist for the Kansas City Star, announced last month that he would not be voting for Yoder this fall.
“I have come to the painful decision that I cannot vote for Kevin Yoder for a fifth term representing Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District. I have always voted for him in the past. But, casting a ballot for Yoder in the Nov. 6th election would feel like I was aiding and abetting President Donald Trump.”
Steve Rose, Republican columnist for the Kansas City Star
Rose is not alone.
Take, for example, Terry Poulos, a retired teacher who has supported Yoder in the past. “I’m not going to vote Republican again for a very long time,” says Poulos, comparing Trump’s America to living in a “bad dream.”
Jeff Bell, a software engineer from Overland Park who identifies as a fiscal conservative, agrees, “I just know I’m voting Democratic because I don’t like Trump.”
Kathleen Hermes, another registered Republican who is supporting Davids this fall, shares a similar sentiment, “I hope this election turns up a lot of surprises and makes it clear that people aren’t willing to live with the status quo.”
Who is Sharice Davids?
But, Davids is not winning just because Trump is unpopular. The strength of Davids’ candidacy is her personal biography. Her life story offers much insight into her personal character, diverse range of experiences, and professional aptitudes.
Many will focus on her gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity as her defining characteristics. But, there is so much more to Ms. Davids.
She is one of three children raised by a single mother in a suburban Kansas community. Davids’ mother served as a police officer in Overland Park, Kansas. Davids worked her way through college and law school to become the first in her family to earn a college degree. She started at the local community college, eventually earning her law degree from Cornell University.
Although she is only 38 years old, Davids has compiled an impressively diverse array of professional experiences. She identifies primarily as a lawyer and economic advisor for the disadvantaged. She has worked as a corporate attorney before moving to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to develop an entrepreneurial curriculum for the reservation’s high school.
Perhaps her most impressive achievement to date was serving as a White House Fellow. During her fellowship, she worked at the Department of Transportation. And, she also has experience as a small business owner.
Davids is A Fighter
Yes, quite literally Sharice Davids is an MMA Fighter. As a kid, she was obsessed with Bruce Lee, admiring his discipline and work ethic. She began training for MMA as a 19-year-old college student.
Davids fought her first amateur MMA bout in 2006 as she was completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri- Kansas City. Despite continuing to fight as both an amateur and twice as a professional, she never seriously considered MMA as a full-time profession.
“In terms of career options, I didn’t think about MMA at all. I don’t know if I really thought it was a career path for many women. For someone like me, even in my prime, it wasn’t something I really considered.”
Metaphorically, she is a fighter as well. Davids has been fortunate to have a supportive family and more opportunities than others. But there are good reasons why people with her background do not usually achieve political power.
Here are some factors that are strongly correlated with poverty:
- Almost 1/3 of Native American children live in poverty.
- Children raised in single-parent households are 5 times as likely to live in poverty as those in two-parent households.
- Poverty rates are more than double for families in which neither parent has a college degree than for families in which one or more of the parents do.
- LGBT individuals are also more likely to be poor than other groups.
With these odds, Davids success is remarkable. She has worked hard and persevered in spite of the obstacles. And her experience fighting through these challenges clearly motivates her political aspirations today.
“I have a lived experience that we need to see more of on all kinds of fronts, from having started off with an associate’s [degree] at a community college to being raised by a single mom, being a first generation college student. These things are not at all out of the ordinary for a lot of people in this country, but they are very out of the ordinary for the people who represent us in Congress.”
Sharice Davids is A Lesbian
Many of us think it is pretty awesome that in 2018, this statement is not an attack on her character. Davids has not made her sexual orientation the focus of her campaign. But, she is not at all ashamed of it. If elected, she will be the first openly gay woman to serve in the House of Representatives.
This is actually a disappointing detail. But, consider this- when Sharice Davids was born in 1980, the majority of Americans agreed that it was acceptable to prosecute individuals for homosexual behavior. And, many states did exactly that.
In 1969, Kansas explicitly outlawed homosexual sex acts. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia law banning homosexual relations. The Court argued that Georgia’s law was valid because most people in the state believed that “homosexual sodomy is immoral and unacceptable.”
Today, Davids sexual orientation is almost a non-factor and has been an asset in some ways. In September, she held a fundraiser at the storied Stonewall Inn, the historic gay club in Greenwich Village. The Stonewall Inn is most famous as the site of the Stonewall Riots, which sparked the LGBT movement almost 50 years ago.
The Ultimate Outsider
Sharice Davids’ demographic traits will probably not help much. Many will refuse to vote for her simply because she is a woman, a lesbian, and/or a Native American. But, these factors might also inspire some to support her. The likely outcome is that these voters will cancel each other out. Most of them probably would have voted for the Republican or Democratic candidate regardless of either candidate’s personal characteristics.
Davids’ positions on a number of issues are more liberal than the average voter in the district that she is running to represent. This, certainly more than her biography, is her most serious weakness as a candidate. Most political analysts argued during the Democratic primary that only a centrist Democratic candidate could unseat an incumbent Republican in Kansas.
And David’s life story is certainly not typical of the kinds of people who ascend to political power.
““First-generation college student, raised by a single mom, working the entire time I was school, none of those are uncommon, but they are not common enough with people who are creating legislation that affects all of us and that will make a difference in the direction our country is heading.”
Davids is Flipping the Script
Nevertheless, the appeal of Davids’ background is that she relates to many constituencies that have been “Yoder voters” in the past. Many of the swing voters in the district are suburban parents with high aspirations for their children. Davids, with her Ivy League law degree, embodies the level of achievement they desire for their kids.
Female candidates often battle the stereotype that they are not “tough enough” for the political arena. The widespread acceptance of misogynistic attitudes among Trump supporters would seem to make this even more of a liability. Yet, Davids’ MMA experience, which she has highlighted in her campaign, testifies to her toughness. Suppose she were to jump into the ring with any of her male political opponents. Does anyone doubt who will be left standing at the end of the bout?
Yoder’s campaign and outside groups supporting his candidacy have accused Davids of being “anti-police.”
Accusations of being “soft on crime” often work well for Republican candidates campaigning in suburban areas. They know that many voters are primarily concerned with keeping their communities safe and can be motivated by “law and order” campaigns. Yet, it is more difficult to attach this criticism to Davids since her mother was a police officer in Overland Park, Kansas’ 2nd largest city, for over 20 years.
Will Voter Send the “Radical Socialist Kickboxing Lesbian Indian” “Back to the Reservation”?
The most visible moment in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district race took place in the midst of the battle over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. And, of course, the tension centered on a social media faux pas, the 21st century’s professional bugaboo.
Many Republicans in the district are clearly on edge. Yoder is trailing in the polls. Election forecasters are predicting a “Blue Wave” that might give the Democrats control of at least one house of Congress. Many Republicans are angry about the treatment of Kavanaugh.
Enter Michael Kalny, a GOP precinct committee member. Republicans in Kansas, and probably all candidates everywhere, “scrub” the comments sections of official, political, and personal social media accounts. This, of course, does not prevent opponents from continuing to post them.
Kalny lashed out by sending a Facebook message to Ann Pritchett, head of the Johnson County Democratic Women’s north chapter. Kalny believed that Pritchett was behind a series of negative comments on Yoder’s campaign page. He warned her that the “stealth attack” would “blow up” in her “leftist face.” He predicted that the “REAL REPUBLICANS” would make the “scum DEMONRATS” pay and that the “radical socialist kickboxing lesbian Indian will be sent backpacking to the reservation.”
Kalny resigned his position. Recognizing that this kind of rhetoric will not help him in this district, Yoder’s campaign quickly denounced Kalny. Yoder’s spokesman, C.J. Grover told reporters that, “Kevin doesn’t believe this type of rhetoric is appropriate at all. It’s unacceptable.”
The Incumbent is Now the Challenger
The Kalny incident illustrates the difficulties facing Republicans in Kansas’ 3rd district. Yoder has always won but has never been particularly popular. He has had some embarrassments. He is losing the support of the national party, mostly because he is losing the support of his constituents.
The Republican Party has largely abandoned Yoder, choosing to focus on races where its candidate has a better chance of winning. Davids raised more money than Yoder since winning the Democratic nomination in August.
Meanwhile, many outside groups have jumped in to support Davids. Emily’s List, a group that promotes the election of women candidates, has supported her from the start. The Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee has identified her as a top-tier candidate, impressive for a political novice.
Yoder has clearly moved into a defensive mode. Absurdly enough, Yoder’s campaign is attacking Ms. Davids for refusing to challenge Trump while serving as a White House Fellow. According to Yoder, “She worked for the agenda. I just think it seems to be a pretty weak promise…when she already had a chance to do it and she didn’t.” Davids began her service under Obama and White House Fellows as non-partisan and temporary positions.
But, Yoder’s albatross is his record of voting with Trump 92% of the time. As Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, points out…
“I think we know that Yoder is the underdog here. He is not in a good position for re-election. Look at all the polling…The ridiculousness of that attack makes it sound desperate.”
Sharice Davids is Impressive
A Davids’ victory in Kansas’ 3rd district will be monumental in many ways. She will be the first openly gay and first Native American woman to serve in the House of Representatives. Her victory in Kansas makes her election even more symbolic.
Davids’ background might not be that controversial elsewhere, but Kansas is not the rest of the country. Mike McCamon, one of Davids’ Democratic primary opponents, noted that “Prairie Village is not the Bronx.”
Yet Davids is not only winning; she is winning while taking pride in who she is.
“The fact that we are in 2018 and we are still seeing all these firsts is mind-boggling to me. When I stop and think about it, it makes me very proud to be a part of this movement that is happening in our country. I feel like all of us are playing a role in this. This unprecedented number of women running for office – myself and a couple of other candidates are native women – makes me very proud.”
We Need Sharice Davids to Win
Donald Trump is really unpopular, especially among the demographic groups that will decide the election in Ms. Davids’ district. Will these voters hold him accountable by voting out incumbent politicians that support him?
We claim to be a tolerant and accepting society. Will voters unhappy with Trump vote for such an unconventional candidate?
Many conservatives insist that they do not discriminate based on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. They just want people to assimilate. So, will voters accept a candidate who has “played by the rules” and “assimilated”?
A Davids’ victory will not end racism, homophobia, or misogyny. A Davids’ victory will not change the minds of the racists, homophobes, and sexists.
But, a Davids’ victory will send a clear message to Trump and his supporters. Even wealthy, white Republicans in Kansas do not approve of the Trump’s divisive and hateful rhetoric. And, they are willing to take a risk on a political novice with an unconventional background to send that message.
We can and should combat hate and violent extremism. But, we also need more heroes who show how wrong the racists, sexists, and homophobes really are. Sharice Davids is exactly that kind of hero.