With Drag Of Brownback, Trump, Kansas's 3rd Congressional District Race Tightens

Oct 26, 2016

Nobody saw this coming. A Kansas congressional race so big that President Obama has weighed in with his endorsement of the Democrat.

But such is the unexpectedly tight race for the 3rd Congressional District.

Here’s the thing about the race between incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder and Democrat Jay Sidie: it feels like a race for state legislature rather than a run for Congress.

Democrat Jay Sidie at a recent campaign event. The political newcomer is running a surprisingly close race against incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

Sidie is a businessman from Mission Woods and a total political newcomer. On a recent Saturday he was at a gathering of candidates at an elementary school in Overland Park. Sidie was stopped by a mom who wanted to know if he supports a parenting program called Parents as Teachers -- Kansas recently restricted eligibility for the program. 

"I think that all kids should have a fair shake," Sidie says. 

Not that Congress has much say in some Kansas education program or anything else in public education for that matter.

But education is big in Johnson County, where the real battle over the seat will be waged, and it allows Sidie to yoke the incumbent to the very unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback.

"I think linking Yoder to Brownback was a safer strategy for Sidie earlier," says University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller.

Yoder and Brownback have never served together, either in Washington or Topeka.

But, when Sidie got in the race nobody knew whether Donald Trump would be popular come November, so his campaign stuck with the Brownback strategy. Now we know Trump is faltering.

Miller says the 3rd District is moderate, has elected Democrats before and will probably go for Clinton for president. 

"So I’m not surprised to see Yoder in a close race here given that Clinton is leading in the district. You probably have some voters who are swinging to Sidie because they’re following Clinton at the top of the ticket," Miller says. 

The two latest polls, both from Democratic-leaning sources, have Yoder winning by just four points, within the margin of error. This is unfamiliar territory for Yoder who got 60 percent or more of the vote in his last two races.

Yoder admits this is a tough year for incumbents. "It’s a challenging climate for candidates in both parties across the country right now. The country is very, very divided."

The Republican is fighting hard for a fourth term. He recently brought former Sen. Bob Dole to Overland Park to boost his campaign. And he's unleashed a string of negative ads, calling Sidie a failed small businessman and highlighting that while Sidie talks about education he failed to vote in several Shawnee Mission School District bond elections.

Sidie also didn’t vote in the last congressional election. "I think the question you ought to ask him is, does he know where his polling place is and is he going to vote in this year’s congressional race," Yoder says. 

Sidie responds that he was out of state tending to a family emergency in 2014 but says he wishes he had a better voting record.

Meanwhile, the Democratic challenger is not only questioning Yoder’s commitment to public education but also who donates to his campaign.

"The payday loan industry is a parasite on our community and should be heavily regulated. It demonstrates where Kevin’s focus is."

According to OpenSecrets.org, Yoder has received the third most donations to U.S. House or Senate candidates from the payday loan industry this cycle.

The Yoder campaign didn’t address that directly, instead saying in a statement that Yoder is focused on "fighting against excessive government regulation."

With Election Day around the corner, there’s no doubt Yoder is in trouble.

As infuriating as it is to the Yoder campaign, the exploitation of Brownback’s under 25-percent approval rating is working. And the newest Sidie spot links the incumbent to Trump.

The spot, released Tuesday, includes audio of Trump from that leaked Access Hollywood video and reminds voters Yoder continues to endorse Trump.

We’ll see a barrage of ads in the last couple of weeks because both Sidie and Yoder have a lot of outside money to make their closing argument.

Sam Zeff is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend and covers education for KCUR, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow Sam on Twitter @SamZeff.