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A Look At The Sizable Pool Of Candidates Hoping To Represent Kansas' Big 1st

Kansas' Big 1st Congressional District comprises 63 counties where agriculture is central to the economy.
Corinne Boyer
Kansas News Service
Kansas' Big 1st Congressional District comprises 63 counties where agriculture is central to the economy.

GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Four Republicans and two Democrats are running for Kansas’ 1st Congressional District seat. It’s open because Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall hopes to win the  U.S. Senate seat held by Pat Roberts, who is retiring.

Known as the Big 1st, the congressional district encompasses 63 counties (more than half in the state) and starts just past Manhattan in eastern Kansas, going south to Hutchinson and west all the way to the Colorado border. 

The Kansas News Service interviewed five of the candidates ahead of the Aug. 4 primary to find out where they stand on major issues; Republican Michael Soetaert did not respond to requests for an interview. The candidates are divided by party, and listed in alphabetical order after that.


Kali Barnett

Age: 35  

Lives in: Manhattan 

Kali Barnett.
Credit Provided
Kali Barnett.

About her: Barnett was born and grew up in Garden City. She grew up singing with her dad in church, eventually becoming a public school music teacher.

Why she’s running: Barnett was inspired by the number of women who ran for Congress in 2018 and the massive teacher strikes during the same year. “I’m incredibly passionate about fighting for our education system, especially our public schools and especially our rural communities and the need for our schools to be thriving,” she said.

Government’s handling of COVID-19: On the state level, Barnett thinks Gov. Laura Kelly made sound decisions and acted quickly. But she said that wasn’t the case for the federal government’s response: “As a country, there’s been a lot of division on what the best decisions have been and how to act quickly on that.”

Killing of George Floyd and police violence: “My thoughts go out to the family of George Floyd and all of the families who have experienced this brutality and their life ending too soon because .... being at the hands of the police.” She said she doesn’t condone violent protests, adding, “I understand the sadness, the hurt and the rage that our black communities and our people of color are experiencing … and have experienced for decades.” If elected, Barnett said she will continue to “stand up for justice and our communities, and that includes our people of color that are here.”

Agriculture: Barnett supports farmers and ranchers and said issues like trade instability and the farm-economy need to be addressed to help agriculture thrive. “It’s incredibly important that we are a voice for our family farms and their interests and not corporations,” she said. Barnett’s family in 2002 lost their wheat farm, the only source of income, when she was 17. She said a few weeks later, she sang with her dad in a wedding in the morning, and he died from a heart attack at 47 that afternoon.

Immigration: Barnett said there should be “a path to citizenship that is created for our immigrant families and communities, especially people that have been here for a very, very long time.” She added: “It is really important that we support all of our people here in the 1st district.”

Health care: Barnett wants to “build off of” the health care system President Barack Obama put into law, saying “we cannot eliminate that right now.” She supports universal health care, saying that it “includes mental health care, eye care and dental care.” Telemedicine is also an important part of health care in the largely rural district, she said.

Climate change: Whether dealing with flooding or drought, Barnett said ranchers and farmers will continue dealing with extreme weather. She wants to reduce carbon emissions and work with farmers and ranchers “to not put regulations that will hinder them, but that will empower people to have this positive change.” She pointed to Kansas’s wind energy industry as a renewable source that is working well.

Christy Davis

Age: 45

Lives in: Cottonwood Falls

Christy Davis.
Credit Provided
Christy Davis.

About her: Davis grew up in Harvey County and has worked in all 105 Kansas counties. She and her husband have an 8-year-old son, and Davis owns her own historic preservation company. She’s been involved with the Democratic Party for about 20 years and worked on now-Gov. Laura Kelly’s state Senate campaign in 2004.

Why she’s running: Davis wants to be a voice for rural communities. “People in rural communities have pretty strong opinions about things, and I know a lot of folks ... feel like they're being left out,” Davis said. In the past, she said people in communities dealing with rural hospitals and community development issues have asked for her help. “And over time then there came to be an open seat,” she said, “So that was an opportunity.” Davis has received endorsements from former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, former Kansas U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda and former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

Government’s handling of COVID-19: She said she applauds Kelly’s handling of the public health crisis. Davis said it’s important that people have access to information and had more of it been available, it could have saved lives. She said some good leadership came from the federal government: “When you don’t have good administration, it’s hard to keep those good public employees. So I’m grateful given the situation that we've had with dismantling government, that we've had some good folks remain.”

Killing of George Floyd and police violence: “I’m not of the camp that all police are bad,” Davis said. “I’m out of the camp that there are bad apples, but there are systematic changes that should be taking place.” For Davis, everyone should have the right to experience life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “We have folks who haven't had access to those basic values,” Davis said, adding that her experience with police differs from what people experience in big cities. “Nobody should be in a situation where they live in fear of the people who are supposed to be protecting us,” she said.

Agriculture: Davis grew up on a dairy farm until she was 11. “In the ’80s, like a lot of dairy farms, it went under,” she said, likening that decade to the present where consolidation and bankruptcies are impacting family farms. Producers, she said, aren’t benefiting from meat prices, but they should be. “Because of my background, because of the folks that I work with every day, I’m going to err on the side of the producers … family farmers (and) family ranchers.”

Immigration: Looking back at the history immigration in the 19th century, Davis said immigrants contributed to and “played central roles in communities, and that there was also a pretty fast-track way for folks to become citizens.” She wants people to have the opportunity to immigrate here legally.

Health care: She is concerned about the Republican candidates who want to see the health care law eliminated. She advocated for the act, passed in 2010, after her sister, who was a doctor in Salina, told her about low-income people who don’t have access to health care. Davis's sister died from a rare form of cancer. It’s not a perfect solution, Davis said, but it is important to her because it protects people with pre-existing conditions. “I have the BRC1 gene,” she said. “In order to address the concerns, as far as my risk for (breast) cancer, that could kill me, I had to have prophylactic surgery.” 

Climate change: Because farmers and ranchers’ “entire livelihood depends on climate” and is “tied to weather on both a macro and micro level,” Davis said the conversation should start with them: “I'm going to be the person who is advocating, getting lots of different perspectives and identifying specific approaches that folks should take when addressing the issue.”


Two GOP candidates took part in a June debate that included a guest speaker from the organization Understanding the Threat, which says on its website that “the mission … is to empower citizens, elected officials and police to dismantle the Marxist/communist and jihadi networks inside the United States and re-establish America’s founding principles in their communities.” We asked those candidates about the organization, and their answers are below.

Bill Clifford

Age: 65 (66 in July)

Lives in: Garden City

Bill Clifford.
Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Bill Clifford.

About him: At 17, Clifford left his home state of New Jersey, eventually joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot. Clifford is an ophthalmologist and has lived in Garden City for 25 years; the couple adopted five children and have six kids.

Why he’s running: Clifford thought being a Finney County Commissioner would be his “terminal service to community.” But once the congressional seat opened up, people asked him to consider running. “I wasn't seeking it, but they said ‘You are the right kind of person; you have the right attitude. You can get along with people.’” He says his ideology also matches the district well: He’s conservative, pro-life and supports President Donald Trump.

Government’s handling of coronavirus: As a physician, Clifford said his perspective is unique. He has close friends working in ICU units who are in constant contact with people who have the virus. He said Finney County has had to modify its reopening because of the number of cases. But he says there’s been an overreach in blue states. “I do think this pandemic has brought it home to citizens how arbitrarily their rights can be taken away by government,” Clifford said, “and as a conservative, I totally disagree with that approach.”

Killing of George Floyd and police violence: Clifford said he sends prayers to the family of Floyd and called his death, which happened when a Minneapolis officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, “a great tragedy.” He supports free speech and protests. “My support ends when windows start breaking and vehicles start being torched and first responders are attacked,” he said, adding that he backs Trump’s “law and order approach.”

Agriculture and immigration: Clifford’s grandparents immigrated from Ireland, and he said he understands the immigrant story. He also sees the importance of immigration to agriculture, as Kansas’ cattle, grain operations and dairies rely on immigrant labor. First, he wants the border secured and backs Trump’s efforts to do that. “But then we’ve got to get these visa processes correct,” he said, also noting the government needs to get the guest-worker program “right.”

Health care: Clifford said access to health care is a problem: “You could give everybody insurance, but there aren’t enough doctors, nurse practitioners, physicians, assistants to see all those people.” He’d like to see the Medicare budget increased “so we can get more physicians trained.” Prescription drug coverage and availability is something Clifford’s patients say affects them, and his solution is to bring drug production back to the U.S. As far as the affordability of health care, Clifford supports “free-market solutions rather than government solutions” because he says competition will push down costs.

Climate change: Clifford pays attention to scientific data, and said the Earth goes through cold and hot cycles. “I do feel we are in a cycle of warming. I think we may just find ourselves back in the cooling phase,” he said. Clifford added that he doesn’t support “actions, especially unilateral actions by our country that would be harmful to our economy.”

On Understanding the Threat organization: Clifford said he had not heard of the organization. He said he doesn’t need to agree with the group to have participated in the debate, and thinks more people running for office should be opening to ideas from the left, right and center. Clifford also said he lived in Saudi Arabia for a year and understands Islam: “I would disagree with anyone who would truncate our ability to worship freely in this country, because that's a founding principle.”

Tracey Mann

Age: 43 

Lives in: Salina

Tracey Mann.
Credit Provided
Tracey Mann.

About him: Mann grew up in Quinter in Gove County, where his family has farmed and raised cattle for more than a century. He played eight-man football growing up and attended Kansas State University where he studied agricultural economics. Mann, who has four children, said the bulk of his career has been as a realtor and property developer. He also was the state’s 50th lieutenant governor, serving in former Gov. Jeff Colyer’s administration.

Why he’s running: Mann said he wants “to take Kansas conservative values and to advocate for agriculture in Washington, D.C.,” adding: “I see what’s happening in D.C. with A.O.C. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and The Squad and Bernie Sanders and this march toward socialism, and it really alarms me.”

Government’s handling of coronavirus: In early June, Mann said it was past time to reopen and “get back to work.” “Steps were taken to flatten the curb early on but those things are behind us and we need to restart the economy,” he said.

Killing of George Floyd and police violence: Mann called Floyd’s killing horrible. “It was murder, as I see it, from a police officer, and that person should be charged to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. Mann agrees with peaceful protests,but, he said, “As protests become violent and they damage other people’s property, that is not right either, and we’ve got to be a country of law and order.”

Agriculture: Mann said he’s a proponent for agriculture, and has the backing of the Kansas Farm Bureau. He said the industry is facing a number of issues like “low commodity prices, lack of free trade or trade barriers” and “burdensome regulation from the EPA and others.” He added that “free trade is the future of ag.” By increasing demand, Mann said that will improve commodity prices, “which will help main streets in Garden City, Scott City, throughout southwest Kansas and throughout the entire state.”

Immigration: Mann supports legal immigration and Trump’s border wall. He said securing the border is the first step. “Beyond that, we need a system in place where people can come to the country legally and do jobs needed for our economy,” Mann said.

Health care: It begins with having “good doctors,” Mann said. Having the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Salina helps “because (there’s a) much higher likelihood that those students will stay in our more rural underserved areas,” he said. As far as health care coverage, Mann said he “rejects Obamacare. I do not think that government should take over our medical system.”

Climate change: Mann said scientific data shows that the “climate is changing” and “scientific data that says it’s not.” He doesn’t think any changes need to be made to the economy because of climate change. “I hear stories about smog and various things, the climate and how it was decades ago, and is getting much better,” he said. “I don’t believe the federal government needs to be adding more regulations at this time.”

On Understanding the Threat organization: Mann also said he had not heard of the group. He said America is a democracy and debates are fundamental to a democracy. “I’m delighted to talk about issues with whoever arrives,” he said, adding: “Freedom of religion is one of our basic founding principles.”

Jerry Molstad

Age: 63  

Lives in: La Crosse

Jerry Molstad.
Credit Provided
Jerry Molstad.

About him: Molstad grew up in Colby and has served in the military — from the Army National Guard in Dodge City and Missouri, as well as the Air Force Reserves in Wichita and Colorado. The physicians assistant in family practice and emergency room medicine used to be a pharmaceutical sales representative for Eli Lilly in western Kansas. He has six kids and is also one of six siblings. 

Why he’s running: He ran as a Democrat in the 1st District in 1992, but since then, he’s “been outside the box of on the military side” and as a first responder. “All my life ... I was in ambulances and fire departments and ERs.” He doesn’t think being a congressman or a senator should be a lifetime appointment, and wants to “make a bigger difference” in a “short amount of time.”

Government’s handling of coronavirus: Overall, he thinks the government did a good job handling the pandemic, but that cities like New York weren’t prepared. He remembers the September 11 terrorist attacks.“You have to put this (on) the same page as a biochemical attack and you do need the resources, the ventilators, the masks,” he said. His job gave him a front-row seat on how the virus affected the rural 1st district. “Little places out here in western Kansas, we could handle so much,” he said. “Then you have to go to a referral center like St. Catherine's or even here at Hays Medical Center, it was overwhelming.”

Killing of George Floyd and police violence: Molstad watched the video and said it was “absolutely painful.” He also said he doesn’t want to stigmatize police, but “the race issues that are going on, I understand it. I really do.” He has discussed it with his coworkers, saying: “We don't understand how a peaceful thing can turn into a free-for-all breaking into businesses that goes against everything I think about protesting.”

Agriculture: Molstad has cattle in Scott County and used to have farm ground in Thomas County. He said cattle producers are getting hurt by prices. “They feed them, take care of them, and then when you try to sell them, no one wants to pay a premium dollar for them,” he said, adding, “Someone's making money off this now, but it sure as heck isn’t the Kansas rancher.”

Immigration: “Without the Hispanic population in southwest Kansas, there would be no beef in this industry whatsoever,” he said. He wants immigrants to be able to get visas and work because they are doing jobs like driving grain trucks and working in meatpacking, that other people don’t want to do. Those industries “be high and dry without these people that have a really high work ethic,” he said.

Health care: Molstad said Obama’s health care law was a good start, but thinks the standards should be loosened because he knows there are people who can’t afford insurance. “There's people who just make $1 more than they should, and they're ineligible for Medicare, Medicaid or Medicaid or (KanCare)” he said.

Climate change: Molstad said climate change is happening, and it should be up to individuals to change their own habits. “Don’t use your car, don't drive all over. Be efficient with your use of energy.” Taxing industries, like airlines, won’t help, he said, rather, “it just runs the cost up,” he said.

Clarification: This story previously stated a Democrat last held the seat in the 1950s. Congressional district borders change over time. A southwest Kansas Democrat served in Congress in the 1960s.

Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter@corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org

Copyright 2020 High Plains Public Radio

Corinne Boyer
Corinne Boyer is a reporter for the Kansas News Service at High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas. Following graduation, Corinne moved to New York City where she interned for a few record labels, worked as a restaurant hostess and for a magazine publisher. She then moved to Yongin, South Korea where she taught English and traveled to Taiwan, Thailand, Belgium and South Africa. Corinne loved meeting new people and hearing their stories. Her travels and experiences inspired her to attend graduate school. In 2015, she graduated with a Master of Science in journalism degree from the University of Oregon. She gained her first newsroom experience at KLCC—Eugene’s NPR affiliate. In 2017, she earned the Tom Parker Award for Media Excellence for a feature story she wrote about the opioid epidemic in Oregon. That year, she was also named an Emerging Journalist Fellow by the Journalism and Women Symposium.