Six Democrats in Kansas are vying this week to challenge a Republican incumbent in an unusually crowded primary for a typically safe GOP seat, in the latest test of whether Democrats in red states will embrace left-wing ideals.
The race for the Kansas 3rd District has gained national attention, as the jam-packed Democratic field jockeys to challenge GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder in his quest for re-election.
Some of the Democratic candidates have focused on more liberal policy planks, with one candidate getting support from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a leading voice on the left. Others have focused on a more centrist approach, stoking a debate over whether primary voters in red states should focus more on their ideals or who would be most effective in a general election.
One of the leading candidates, former White House fellow Sharice Davids, would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress and one of few openly gay lawmakers if she goes on to defeat Yoder in November. Her two strongest opponents are Brent Welder, a labor lawyer endorsed by Sanders, and Tom Niermann, a high school history teacher backed by local elected officials. Other candidates include Sylvia Williams, a banker, Mike McCamon, a former tech executive, and Jay Sidie, the 2016 Democratic nominee for the seat.
Yet despite the debate, experts argue that the surge of Democratic enthusiasm in the district, which is located in the northeast part of the state, could be a big warning sign for Yoder.
"It's the first contentious primary for Democrats with an uncertain outcome in Kansas, period," said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. "Republicans are losing in races where they outspent absolute nobodies by incredible margins. Yoder can't afford to take the re-election for granted."
Welder and Davids will likely appeal to more liberal voters. Niermann and Williams could draw more moderate voters who believe they have the best chance to replace Yoder in a GOP-leaning area.
"It's unusual to have a candidate stressing LGBT issues, and another that is endorsed by Bernie Sanders, doing so well in Kansas," said Michael Smith, political science professor at Emporia State University in Kansas. "In fact, it's unusual for Democrats in Kansas to have a primary race at all. Usually they just run one candidate per race."
Left-wing progressives have had some success over moderate candidates in hotly contested swing districts this year. For instance, political newcomer Kara Eastman beat former Rep. Brad Ashford in the Democratic primary for Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District in May.
Some observers would argue Yoder has the best chance to win in November against Welder, who is running as an unapologetic progressive. Last month, he rallied with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders. Ocasio-Cortez stunned high-ranking Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for his heavily blue Queens and Bronx district in New York.
Yoder targeted Welder's progressive campaign in an ad Friday. In it, a narrator cheerfully touts Welder's political agenda, calling him a "community organizer and "friend of Barack Obama" who wants to raise the minimum wage to $15, wipe out tax breaks for big business and make college free.
Only in the last 10 seconds of the ad does it become clear that it's an anti-Welder spot. The narrator finishes: "We don't need more Obama-Sanders progressives. Brent Welder: too progressive for Kansas."
Among Welder's Democratic rivals, it looked like Yoder was boosting their opponent's name among Democratic voters in order to raise the profile of the candidate he'd prefer to run against. He also looked to be further engaging the Republican base by targeting a liberal opponent.
The ad was not from Yoder's campaign. It was paid for by a so-called dark-money group tied to billionaire Joe Ricketts, whose group Ending Spending has spent about $2 million this election cycle backing Republicans. Davids and Niermann accused Yoder and Ricketts of meddling in their party's primary.
"(Yoder) has now gone yet another bridge too far — calling in Republican dark money to elevate an opponent of his choosing, rather than answer to his constituents for his egregious votes," Davids and Niermann said in a statement said in a statement Friday.
The Yoder campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the ad.
This strategy is not uncommon in primary elections. In 2012, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri admitted that she wanted to run against then-Republican Rep. Todd Akin and as a result tried boosting him in the Republican primary.
"Yoder's taking a page from McCaskill's playbook," said Miller, the University of Kansas professor. "He'll ultimately win by kneecapping the Democrats out of the game, by hitting them hard and destroying their chances."
Welder's campaign has targeted the state's fiscal and economic crises, which have been linked to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's radical tax-cutting experiment that led to budget shortfalls and education funding cuts. In 2017, the Republican-controlled state legislature overrode his veto to reverse the cuts.
Welder declared at a rally with Sanders that "Kansas populism is alive and well" and said a "bold, progressive economic plan" would win back the working-class voters who abandoned Democrats for President Donald Trump in 2016. Sanders backed up Welder by pointing to his overwhelming victory in the Kansas Democratic caucuses in 2016.
Yet while Sanders won 62 percent of the 3rd District vote in the Democratic caucuses that year, the voter turnout was low, Miller said. It also included "hardcore" party supporters from the left, Miller added. Tuesday's primary will likely see a more diverse group of voters.
Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates have gotten marching orders from local party leadership not to attack each other, according to Ethan Corson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.
"Don't do Kevin Yoder's job for him," a local party official told them, according to Corson.
— Graphics by CNBC's John Schoen.