How are candidates in Kansas’ 3rd District dealing with Trump, Biden? From a safe distance

President Joe Biden loitered around the House floor after his State of the Union address last month, chatting and taking selfies with Democratic lawmakers as he basked in the limelight.

Rep. Sharice Davids wasn’t one of them. The Kansas Democrat steered clear of the throng surrounding the president and left the chamber shortly after the speech. In a statement following the speech, she distanced herself from the leader of her party.

Davids offered the caveat that she, “did not agree with everything the President said,” before listing out some policies she agreed with — lowering costs for families, defending abortion rights and protecting democratic norms.

Davids’ State of Union statement could be read as a summary of her 2024 reelection playbook — focus on the policies, not the president.

The congresswoman swept into Washington amid the backlash to former President Donald Trump. She held onto her seat despite President Joe Biden’s steady unpopularity.

Now, as she seeks her fourth term representing Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, she’s avoiding the name Joe Biden and trying to convince voters to focus on the middle of the road persona she’s cultivated over the past six years.

She’s not alone. In the Republican primary for her seat, both of the candidates — Prasanth Reddy, a former executive at LabCorp, and Karen Crnovich, the owner of an HVAC and plumbing contracting business — are trying to get voters to see them separately from the polarizing candidate at the top of the Republican ticket.

While both said they support the former president, they are not actively seeking an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

“He’s our candidate and I’m going to actively support him,” Crnovich said. “But I’m focusing on the voters in Kansas. Every vote matters and every vote counts.”

Both Biden and Trump enter the 2024 presidential election disliked by more than half the country. About 55% of voters disapprove of Biden while about 53% view Trump unfavorably, according to polling averages compiled by the site Five Thirty Eight.

That creates a challenge for the candidates running in newly redrawn districts like Kansas’ 3rd, which is made up of Johnson, Anderson, Franklin, Miami and parts of Wyandotte County.

The district has voted increasingly Democratic since Trump’s surprise victory in 2016. But new congressional lines, approved in 2022, turned it from a district that voted for Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and Biden in the 2012, 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, to one that voted for Romney, Trump and Biden.

The majority of the voters in the district live in Johnson County. Once a stronghold for business-friendly, establishment Republicans, the highly educated, affluent county has been increasingly voting for Democrats as Trump tightened his grip on the Republican Party.

“In a way, she’s facing a microcosm of what a lot of Democrats, including Joe Biden, are facing this cycle, which is needing the support of independents, of at least some moderates, of at least some even Donald Trump-skeptical Republicans,” said Charles Hunt, a political science professor at Boise State University.

A focus on policy

Davids’ has been trying to stitch together that coalition in two ways — emphasizing her support for abortion rights and highlighting the money she’s been able to bring to the district over the past two years.

She frequently holds events highlighting two large-scale federal funding bills passed in 2021 that are still helping to fund local projects – a bipartisan infrastructure deal and a Democrat-pushed COVID-19 relief bill that spent $1.9 trillion.

But in the past two years, with a divided Congress, those bipartisan deals have slowed. While Davids was able to secure around $15.8 million in the spending package for the 2024 fiscal year, it didn’t pass until this March, more than five months into the year.

Instead, Davids has turned to talking about partisan gridlock. She recently visited Finley Farms in Johnson County before hosting a press conference in which she stressed her desire for Congress to pass a farm bill, which is currently running on a temporary expansion.

At those events, even if Biden administration officials are present, Davids rarely talks about Biden himself.

“Rep. Davids is grateful for the President’s collaboration in rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure and lowering health care costs, but has also pushed back against his administration and party leaders when their priorities do not align with Kansans’,” said Zac Donley, Davids’ spokesman. “She’s shown she’ll work with anyone, including federal officials and local leaders from both parties, to make life easier for people in the Third District.”

While Democrats like Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, has celebrated Biden’s attempts to forgive student loan debt, Davids has openly criticized the effort, saying he should instead be focused on making higher education more affordable.

The Republican candidates are critical of Davids’ claims of being a moderate, saying she hasn’t done enough to push back against the Biden administration, particularly on immigration.

“The voters in the Third District are smart, and they know that while Rep. Davids talks a good game, she goes to Washington and votes the party line,” Reddy, one of the Republicans running against Davids said. “She has done nothing to fix the situation at the border, slow the rise in crime in the KC metro, and reduce the cost of gas and groceries.”

Davids supported a bipartisan immigration deal that would have made it easier for Biden to limit border crossings. The package faltered after Republicans said it wasn’t conservative enough to win their support. She’s also opposing some of the hard-line immigration packages passed by House Republicans that have failed to get traction in the Senate.

Kansas GOP moving farther right

Meanwhile, both Reddy and Crnovich are trying to keep their own party’s nominee at an arm’s length.

It’s a difficult task in a Republican primary, which features a much different – and more conservative – electorate than normally shows up in the fall for the general election.

Increasingly, the Kansas Republican Party has become a loyal arm of the Trump wing of the party, rather than the more establishment wing that could be found in former Sen. Bob Dole.

After the annual spending bill passed last month, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, Mike Brown was critical of the Kansas Republicans who supported it – Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Jake LaTurner.

“For those who voted for the $1.2T spending package, please hear me loud and clear: the base is mad as hell,” Brown wrote in his weekly newsletter following the vote.

Without a hard-line conservative in the race, Reddy and Crnovich haven’t raced to secure an endorsement from Trump, unlike competitive Republican primaries in other states and districts.

Instead, Reddy has turned to racking up endorsements from congressional leaders. He’s been endorsed by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Richard Hudson and has gotten a donation from Speaker Mike Johnson’s leadership PAC.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already been quick to use those endorsements to tie Reddy to the Trump-wing of the Republican Party as it tries to build support around voters’ fears about what a second Trump term could mean for democratic norms in Washington.

“Voters increasingly, yes they’re loyal to their parties, but really what tends to motivate them even more than positive feelings about their own party, are negative feelings about the other party,” Hunt said.