Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez rally Democrats in deep-red Kansas

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez hope to stoke the liberal march

July 20, 2018 - 9:06 pm
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Two luminaries in the democrat socialist movement — one its national leader, the other its new star — descended on solidly Republican Kansas on Friday, taking their emboldened liberal message to an unlikely testing ground before next month's congressional primaries.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who rose to fame following her surprise win in last month's New York congressional primary, see an opportunity to influence Democrat voters in Kansas ahead of the state's Aug. 7 primary. They're especially focused on a crowded congressional primary in the Kansas suburbs of Kansas City.

Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP

In an election year defined by energized Democrat voters seeking to send President Donald Trump a message, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are betting they can stoke the liberal march in places where the left rarely competes.

Looking out into a packed auditorium in Wichita, Sanders said, "People told me Kansas was a Republican state. It sure doesn't look that way."

"Whether you live in Vermont or the Bronx or Kansas, you are outraged by a situation in which three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America," he continued.

Ocasio-Cortez recalled how, in 1861, Kansas chose to be a free state, rather than a slave state.

"That is the crucible and soul of this state," she said. "Back then, the people of Kansas were the tipping point for the future of this nation and today they are again."

The trip is unusual on several fronts. For one, Trump won Kansas in 2016 by 20 percentage points, making it seemingly inhospitable for Democrats, much less democratic socialists. Moreover, Sanders is a 76-year-old Jewish senator from Vermont, while Ocasio-Cortez is a 28-year-old Latina from the Bronx who is poised to become the youngest member of Congress.

This political odd couple began their trip in Wichita campaigning for Democrat James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer running in Kansas' 4th District. He was an activist for Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.

They held an evening rally in Kansas City, Kansas, for Brent Welder, a labor lawyer running in a crowded Democrat primary in Kansas' 3rd District. The district, represented by four-term Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder, is on Democrats' target list as they aim to seize the GOP-controlled House in November. Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the district in 2016.

While the campaign swing is creating a lot of buzz, Republicans are skeptical it will help Democrats make inroads in a conservative state.

State Rep. Tom Cox, a moderate Kansas City-area Republican, said there are pockets of liberal Democrats in the Kansas City suburbs but questioned whether Sanders' message will resonate more broadly. He said Democrats tend to be split between liberals and moderates, with some union members and supporters holding conservative views on social issues.

"Even our Democrats around here are not socialist democrats," he said. "If someone would describe the 3rd District, I would say center right."

Democrats, who have been shut out of statewide and congressional races since 2010, are having a similar debate among themselves. They must pick up at least 23 Republican-held seats to claim the House majority, and they are focusing on 25 districts where Clinton won, or Trump won narrowly.

Leading candidates in the Democrat primary for governor have said their party must rebuild its brand in rural, heavily GOP areas. And despite surging energy among lefist Democrats in the Trump era, it was unclear if there were enough votes in the 3rd District for a liberal Democrat to win.

In 2016, Clinton narrowly won in this urban and suburban district whose neighborhoods are out of keeping with the agriculturally rich prairies that make up much of that state. And before Yoder first won in 2010, it had been held for 12 years by centrist Democrat Dennis Moore, who relied on moderate Republicans during his tenure.

Yet Sanders and his brand of liberalism have proved popular. He won more than two-thirds of the votes in the state's 2016 presidential caucuses, surpassing Barack Obama's 2008 vote total.

Luke Harbur /The Kansas City Star via AP

But registered Republicans in the 3rd District outnumber their Democrat counterparts by more than 50,000, while unaffiliated voters also edge Democrats. Republicans outnumber Democrats by 2-to-1 in the 4th District.

Liberals argue that they are not just convincing moderate Democrats or disaffected Republicans but also engaging new primary voters, as Ocasio-Cortez did in New York this summer and as Sanders did in his insurgent 2016 presidential campaign.

"If you're going to flip the district, you have to get new people involved in the political process," said Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis. "There are so many people not involved."

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