Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders Are Trying to Prove Their Case in Kansas

Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have more expansive aims than electing Brent Welder. They want to prove their theory of the progressive case.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, is interviewed during the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, in 2018; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, campaigning in the Bronx, New York, in 2018. Photos: Gary Miller/FilmMagic/Getty Images; Andres Kudacki for The Intercept

After defying the odds in the Bronx and Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is hitting the road. In her first campaign trip to another congressional district since her June 26 primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez will join Bernie Sanders for rallies this Friday in …


Despite expectations that the Sunflower State is rigidly conservative, growing diversity and revulsion at the disastrous tenure of Gov. Sam Brownback has made Kansas a battleground in the fight for Democrats to win back the House. James Thompson, from the Koch brothers’ home district in Wichita, almost won a surprisingly close special election there last year. He’s running again, and Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders will promote him at one event on Friday.

The nearby 3rd Congressional District, which includes the Kansas side of Kansas City and its suburbs, sits atop Democratic target lists. The district was in Democratic hands as recently as 2010, and Hillary Clinton won it in 2016. Vice President Mike Pence was there last week, amid protests from LGBT activists, hosting a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for endangered incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder. A picture with Pence would set you back $5,400.

But Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have more expansive aims than turning the 3rd blue. They want to prove their theory of the progressive case.

On Friday, they will rally for Brent Welder, a former labor lawyer running on a platform of “Medicare for All,” a $15 an hour minimum wage, tuition-free public college, and reducing big money’s influence in politics. “Brent can win, he can win,” Ocasio-Cortez said on The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin magazine. “And he can not only win his primary, but he can win in a red-to-blue district on a progressive vision. And I think that’s so exciting.”

Indeed, a February poll of the district gave Welder a 7-point lead against Yoder, with broad support for many of Welder’s ideas. “People say, ‘How can you win in Kansas on progressive policies?’” Welder told The Intercept in an interview. “I’ve learned that the only way to win in Kansas is on progressive policies.”

Through June, Welder has raised just shy of $700,000. A little more than a third comes from contributions under $200.

“People say, ‘How can you win in Kansas on progressive policies?’ I’ve learned that the only way to win in Kansas is on progressive policies.”

Kansas holds a special place in the hearts of progressives, and running and winning there on an unapologetic platform has long been a goal. The love affair goes back to “bleeding Kansas,” when abolitionists such as John Brown moved west to Kansas to do battle with slave owners in an effort to turn Kansas into a free state. The bloodshed there was a forerunner to the Civil War. Later, Democrats running as prairie populists dominated the state. Modern progressivism could be said to date to a speech delivered by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 in Osawatomie, Kansas. Just over a century later, Barack Obama returned there at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests to deliver his own version.

The 2005 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas? cemented the state’s proxy status.

Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee put Welder’s race among the small group of seats they’ve focused on this year, like Kara Eastman in Nebraska and Katie Porter in California, where a progressive challenger defeated a moderate rival in the primary. PCCC members nationwide have given over $15,000 to Welder. “We want to prove this proposition, from Nebraska to Kansas to Orange County, that the way to attract votes is with a bold populist economic message,” Green said. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset.”

That sentiment stands in contrast to Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s recent rebuffing of the appeal of democratic socialism outside of the coasts. “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest,” she told CNN. By boosting Welder, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez hope to offer a rebuttal.

To make their case, however, they’ll have to get past EMILY’s List first. Last week, the group’s Super PAC Women Vote! dropped $400,000 on an ad to support Sharice Davids, a lesbian, Native American, amateur mixed martial arts fighter who was a fellow in the Obama administration. The ad plays on Davids’s MMA background: “She never backs down; not in the ring, not to the NRA, or Trump and the Republicans in Washington. … She’s fierce, she’s progressive, and she’s a fighter.”

“That’s a huge ad buy for this district,” said Chris Reeves, a Democratic National Committee member from Kansas City, who is staying neutral in the race. As of the end of June, Davids had only raised $299,000; the Women Vote! ad more than doubles her resources.

Both Welder and Davids are competing for a similar slice of the electorate, with the Super PAC narrowing the fundraising gap. A more moderate candidate could benefit from the split, like Tom Niermann, a teacher at the wealthiest private school in the area.

It sets up a dynamic similar to a recent congressional race in Pennsylvania, when a last-minute barrage of ads from Women Vote! carried Susan Wild, whose fundraising had been anemic, to victory over Sanders-backed Greg Edwards and Trump-supporting conservative district attorney John Morganelli. (Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have company. “I unequivocally endorse Brent for Congress,” Edwards told The Intercept.)

Will outside money or outside energy play a deciding role in Kansas’s 3rd, or will the center exploit an opportunity?

Asked if he considers himself a democratic socialist like his supporters Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, Welder said, “I call myself a Democrat, as I have my entire life.” Indeed, Welder, 37, has a familiar profile for a congressional hopeful. He was an organizer on the Kerry and Obama campaigns; his campaign graphics resemble the Obama logo and his slogan is “Yes We Kansas,” as seen in his first campaign ad.

Welder also worked in the House office of Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran who was instrumental in the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But Welder’s worldview was honed through a hardscrabble Iowa upbringing (his room as a child was in a basement closet) and his years as a lawyer and national field director for the Teamsters union, organizing on workplace safety and better wages. “Our government is completely corrupted by greedy billionaires and executives at giant corporations that do not care about the rest of us,” Welder said. “I’m not saying they hate us, but they don’t care as long as their profit margin ticks up one-tenth of 1 percent.”

He ties a rigged economic system to a rigged political system, where corporations break off a piece of their excess profits to bankroll politicians who grant them favorable rules to continue earning their fortunes.

It’s a vicious cycle that Welder was specifically tasked to stop. After Welder worked for Sanders during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Sanders nominated him to the Democratic National Platform Committee. He successfully passed an amendment encouraging a ban on corporate money in elections. Welder has followed that belief by rejecting corporate PAC dollars in his campaign, a stance taken up by presumed presidential candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and over 140 other Democrats.

This lack of corporate cash hasn’t stopped Welder from earning the support of over 13,000 donors nationwide and an average online contribution of $30. Endorsements from Sanders and groups like Brand New Congress, Our Revolution, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Justice Democrats have helped him build up a strong grassroots field team over the past year. The shoutout from Ocasio-Cortez brought a flood of volunteers and $50,000 in small-dollar donations in a week. By the end of June, he had more small-dollar donations and more cash on hand than any Democrat in the race.

Welder said his agenda, freed from the shackles of corporate money, seeks to tangibly improve people’s lives. “I want to make sure that every person has health care in America,” he said, expressing support for a single-payer “Medicare for All” system. His endorsement of a $15 an hour minimum wage would almost double the current level of $7.25 in Kansas, and he believes increased wages would cycle through the local economy, rather than “sending it to a Wall Street bank or offshore account.” And his pitch for debt-free college winks at his own experience: “My wife and I went to law school, and it wasn’t cheap. And we still haven’t paid the loans off.”

The populist pitch has brought in more than just Bernie acolytes. Jason Kander, former Missouri secretary of state, voting rights champion, resistance hero, and dark horse presidential prospect, endorsed Welder last December. He’s now running for mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, just on the other side of the district.

Though the district was almost evenly split between Clinton and Trump in 2016, Welder believes that the voters who will swing the election are yearning for a populist message. Though Clinton won the general election there, Sanders won the primary — one of only five Republican-held seats with that profile. “The swing voters are the people who voted for Obama twice and then Trump,” Welder said. “When you talk to them about raising wages and benefits and protecting pensions, they will vote for the Democratic Party.”


Brent Welder, left, speaks with voters at a rally in Missouri in 2018.

Photo: Courtesy of Brent Welder campaign

When EMILY’s List first started looking at Kansas’s 3rd District, they found a candidate, a business executive named Andrea Ramsey. EMILY’s List endorsed her, and Ramsey was on the verge of coalescing national support, when she was forced out of the race over allegations of sexually harassing a junior staffer while in the corporate world and then firing him when he rejected her. (Ramsey, who denies the allegations, ended up endorsing Welder.)

Mike McCamon, a Ramsey adviser, jumped into the race with the this-is-not-a-joke campaign slogan “Leading from the Center – the Courage to Compromise.” But EMILY’s List supports pro-choice women, so they looked elsewhere for their candidate.

The organization turned to Davids, a 37-year-old woman with a compelling life story. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Davids would join New Mexico’s Deb Haaland as the only Native American women ever to be elected to Congress. She would also be the first openly gay member of the Kansas delegation. Raised by a single mother and Army veteran, Davids graduated from Johnson County Community College (one of the nation’s best) and then law school at Cornell. She worked as an attorney on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and then as a White House fellow under Obama and during the transition to the Trump administration. EMILY’s List endorsed Davids in May.

In an interview, Davids noted that “at the time I got in, there was no woman in the race.” (Former bank executive Sylvia Williams announced in March.) “I was born into circumstances that until recently would not have been an indicator of running for Congress.”

While the district is less than 2 percent Native American, it is much more diverse than folks would think for Kansas. Wyandotte County, Kansas, where Kansas City is located, is the most urban county in the state, with a large African-American population and a growing Hispanic contingent that has moved there to work in nearby meatpacking plants. There’s a Mexican consulate in Kansas City. It also has a large Hmong and Croatian community.

Two-thirds of the Democratic primary vote comes from Johnson County, home to several affluent suburbs like Overland Park and Olathe. Public education is a point of pride there, and the decimation of Kansas’s education budget in favor of Sam Brownback’s tax cuts has triggered a significant backlash. The state Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, including just a month ago, that Kansas’s low education spending violates the state Constitution. Republicans rebelled and reversed some of Brownback’s tax cuts to fund education before he left for the Trump administration.

“In Johnson County, they regret Brownback,” said Reeves, the DNC member. “It worked out bad for that area.” The district doesn’t have to be told about the effects of the Trump tax cuts; they lived through a state-level version of them.

Davids leads with the Trump tax cuts on her issues page, assailing it as a “corporate giveaway and a handout to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.” When asked if she would reverse them, Davids said, “That’s an interesting word, reverse. … I definitely feel like if we’re doing tax cuts, there’s a way to make sure the very wealthy are not the only people benefiting,” citing possible tax breaks for small businesses that provide health care to their employees.

The response was typical for a candidate with ideas that resonate on the left — including support for clean energy, voting rights, LGBT protections, and comprehensive immigration reform — while still keeping a toe in the technocratic center.

Davids told me that she would vote for a single-payer health care bill if it were presented to her, but added that it would take a while to get there and that increasing access and affordability were also important. She expressed support for a “K-14” concept of free community college (which Obama endorsed late in his presidency), citing her own experience, but not full debt-free or tuition-free college. She rightly called out how money in politics restricts “folks like myself who don’t come from a family with money,” with the perspective of a first-generation college student who had to work their way through school. And yet, she’s benefiting from a giant Super PAC buy. (The spending is done independently of her campaign.)

“Sharice has firsthand experience of the challenges that Kansas’s working families face every day,” said Julie McClain Downey of EMILY’s List about their endorsement. “EMILY’s List is proud to stand with Sharice and knows that with her diverse experience, unique perspective, and deep ties to her community that she can and will win.”

That last statement was a gentle prod at Welder, who only last year moved to the district, where his wife is from.

Davids downplayed the ad, citing EMILY’s List’s support as more important for granting legitimacy to a first-time candidate. “Lots of people know that EMILY’s List only endorses people who are working hard and can win their races,” she said. She added that they’ve given the campaign technical assistance.

Sharice Davids, a Democrat running for Congress in Kansas, talks to supporters at a July 4 event in Prairie Village. (Photo by David Weigel/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Sharice Davids, right, a Democrat running for Congress in Kansas, talks to supporters at a July 4 event in Prairie Village.

Photo: David Weigel/The Washington Post/Getty Images

There’s been no primary polling, but based on fundraising and in-district engagement, insiders believe Davids, Welder, and Tom Niermann have the best chance, with McCamon and Williams (who got in the race late) and 2016 nominee Jay Sidie (who’s raised almost no money) further back.

Niermann teaches at the prestigious Pembroke Hills School, located in the “Country Club” section of Kansas City, on the Missouri side. Access to a network of movers and shakers with children at that school staked Niermann to a fundraising lead among Democrats through June. (Though 34.7 percent of Welder’s money comes from small donors; only 11.2 percent of Niermann’s money does. Factoring in the Super PAC spending, 11 percent of the money backing Davids comes from small donors.)

Niermann just released a powerful ad about having to teach his students about safety procedures during a mass shooting. It’s an example of how all candidates in the 3rd District race have shifted well to the left of Dennis Moore, the Blue Dog who once held this seat for six terms. But relative to Welder and Davids, Niermann is carving out a more moderate space. “He says I’m more moderate, that’s his thing,” said Chris Reeves, “making the argument that the progressives are too far to the left.” Niermann’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

“I don’t buy the idea that a certain kind of politics won’t work in the district. Voters don’t like people who are phony. They’ll disagree with you, but if they think you’re genuine, they will give you the benefit of the doubt.”

Welder balks at the idea that the district cannot support a progressive message. “I reject any notion that the way to win is with a center-right slant,” he said. “Other candidates against Yoder tried that; it doesn’t work.”

All involved have said that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, after considering Andrea Ramsey’s candidacy before she dropped out, has largely steered clear of the race. Green credits the poll his organization conducted, showing Welder in front of Yoder, with keeping the DCCC on the sidelines.

Ocasio-Cortez’s entry into the race makes the fight more nakedly ideological. “I don’t buy the idea that a certain kind of politics won’t work in the district,” Reeves said. “Voters don’t like people who are phony. They’ll disagree with you, but if they think you’re genuine, they will give you the benefit of the doubt.”

The big money in the race is all with Yoder, the top recipient of payday lender money in all of Congress. He has in the past pretended to be a moderate but has voted with Trump 91.7 percent of the time. Yoder has far outraised his Democratic challengers; of the $2.7 million he’s raised, only $13,631 of it has come from individual donations under $200, and over half comes from corporate PACs.

But the Super PAC ad for Davids does add a big-money element to the primary, and big money has been one of the major flash points in the ongoing debate over the future of the Democratic Party. Welder is trying to combat the Super PAC with a small-dollar and volunteer army, but a skirmish among two candidates presenting as progressive could create the opening the more moderate Niermann needs. That outcome, say backers of Welder, would set Democrats back, as the volunteer network he has built needs to be galvanized to juice the turnout needed to turn the seat blue. If money and moderation were enough to do it, the seat would have been taken back by now, they argue.

It would also deprive the insurgent movement the opportunity to prove the case being made by progressive leaders and writers that a bold agenda can play in a swing seat. And the stakes are high. “We’re gonna prove to everyone in the country that bold progressive stances are not just good policy, will not just help people, but it is the way to win, even in Kansas,” Welder said during an interview with the Young Turks, which has been promoting his campaign. “We’ll be able to point to my race and say, ‘This is how we can win in any district in the entire country.'”

Top photos: Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, is interviewed during the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, in 2018; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, campaigning in the Bronx, N.Y., in 2018.

Join The Conversation