At first glance, the Alabama Senate race doesn’t appear to offer many clues about what the 2018 election has in store.
There isn’t likely to be another campaign in which a marginal candidate attempts to hold serve for a sharply divided party while fighting unprecedented allegations of sexual misconduct under a national spotlight.
“To be sure, Roy Moore was a flawed and controversial candidate,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist. “He put a race into play that never should have been in play.”
Even so, Miller said, other things factored into Democrat Doug Jones’ improbable win — factors that also could come into play in some upcoming congressional races in Kansas.
They include Democrats — particularly black voters — turning out in numbers not typically seen in non-presidential elections, Miller said.
“For much of the year it looked like black voters were less engaged than they had been normally,” Miller said, attributing it to a possible “post-Obama effect.”
“But in Virginia and now Alabama, we’ve seen them close the engagement gap,” he said.
In addition, Miller said growing discontent with President Donald Trump helped Jones make inroads with college-educated white voters in the suburbs around Alabama’s major cities. Jones scored his biggest gains among college-educated white women but also bested Hillary Clinton’s totals among educated white men.
If the trends seen in Alabama and a handful of recent special elections continue into next year, it could spell trouble for some Republican members of Congress, Miller said -- particularly those who represent districts that Clinton either won in the 2016 presidential race or lost by fewer than 10 points.
“The number one Republican that imperils in Kansas is Kevin Yoder since he holds a high-education, suburban Clinton district,” Miller said.
Yoder is seeking a fifth term in the 3rd District, which includes all or parts of three metro Kansas City counties: Johnson, Wyandotte and Miami.
Sensing an opportunity in a district that Clinton narrowly won, six Democrats, including Tom Niermann, are competing for the chance to challenge Yoder.
In a statement Wednesday, Niermann, a high school history teacher from Prairie Village, said recent election results could be seen as “a canary in the coal mine for ultraconservatives like Yoder.”
“We’re making the case that a career educator from the middle class can appeal to both parties here in Kansas,” Niermann said, echoing one of Jones’ themes.
Despite facing what appear to be growing headwinds, Yoder in a recent interview expressed confidence that 3rd District voters would continue to support him.
“I’ve been a voice of reason, trying to reach across the aisle [and] work with Democrats and Republicans to solve problems,” he said.
He highlighted one such effort Wednesday, issuing a news release about his efforts to preserve a tax deduction for teachers in the final version of the Republican tax cut bill.
The House bill that Yoder voted for in November eliminated the deduction, which helps teachers who spend their own money on school supplies. The Senate version not only maintained the deduction, it raised it from $250 to $500.
Yoder is now urging members of a conference committee to adopt the Senate provision.
“I’ve listened to many teachers and advocates who recognize the educator expense deduction as one small way to show teachers our appreciation for their hard work,” he said. “This important deduction should remain in our tax code.”
In addition to Niermann, candidates for the Democratic nomination in the 3rd District include Leawood attorney Andrea Ramsey, Reggie Marselus, Chris Haulmark and 2016 nominee Jay Sidie, who lost to Yoder by 11 points.
Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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