Sink or swim

Congressman of Israel skinny-dipping infamy struggles for reelection

‘Vanilla’ Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder, who once swam naked in the Sea of Galilee, is trailing behind his Native American, gay, Democrat rival, Sharice Davids

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., talks to supporters during a parade in Overland Park, Kansas, September 29, 2018. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., talks to supporters during a parade in Overland Park, Kansas, September 29, 2018. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder has never been in this much danger of losing his eastern Kansas congressional seat, not even when his 10-second nude swim in the Sea of Galilee made international headlines.

Yoder, seeking his fifth term, is one of 25 GOP incumbents running for re-election in a district that US President Donald Trump lost in 2016. He trailed his novice Democratic opponent in a recent poll, and the House Republican campaign committee canceled $1.2 million in ad spending.

Now Democrat Sharice Davids is even acting a bit like an incumbent — dropping out of a debate Wednesday just hours beforehand when Yoder cleared his schedule to make it.

Yoder and other Republicans contend that voters will find Davids too liberal for the suburban Kansas City district — echoing arguments that have worked well in the past. But that strategy could prove less effective with many voters ready to vent their anger at Trump.

“I hope this election turns up a lot of surprises and makes it clear that people aren’t willing to live with the status quo,” said Kathleen Hermes, a 68-year-old retiree and registered Republican who has a Davids sign in her yard.

Democratic Congressional candidate Sharice Davids talks to supporters at a campaign office in Overland Park, Kansas, October 1, 2018. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

In a crowded August primary, Democrats nominated perhaps their least conventional choice in Davids. No Native American woman has yet served in Congress, and Kansas has never elected an openly LGBT candidate to major office.

But Davids’ unusual resume has drawn national media attention and she’s received money from groups such as Emily’s List, which backs abortion rights. She’s also been endorsed by President Barack Obama — once a negative in Kansas politics.

Davids was recently in New York for a fundraiser at the iconic Stonewall Inn gay bar, and her campaign said Wednesday that it raised $2.7 million from July 1 through September 30, though its quarterly finance report has yet to be released. Such fundraising could upend Yoder’s usual advantage.

“She has a resume which has caught people’s imagination,” said Kathleen Sebelius, a former two-term Democratic Kansas governor and US health and human services secretary. “She would be a dazzling candidate, I think, in any scenario.”

Yoder’s district covers ever-expanding suburbs, more established bedroom communities and poor Kansas City neighborhoods. While the district leans Republican, GOP moderates are a sizable voting bloc and helped elect centrist Democrat Dennis Moore for 12 years. Moore decided in 2010 to retire, and a GOP wave made it easy for Yoder to win the seat.

Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district by a little more than a percentage point in the 2016 presidential race. Yoder has been a target since the fall of 2016.

“We’ve known this was always going to be a very competitive race,” said Kelly Arnold, the Kansas GOP’s chairman, adding that 2018 is “just a weird year.”

Previously, the biggest bump in Yoder’s career was an August 2011 incident on a trip to Israel for GOP House members. His brief skinny dip where the Bible says Jesus walked on water didn’t come to light for a year but prompted a New York Daily News headline, “NUDES FLASH!”

Yoder apologized; voters appeared to forget about the incident, and he won re-election again in 2014 by 20 percentage points.

Now, the “full” endorsement of Yoder that Trump tweeted in July appears to be a bigger threat to the congressman’s career.

Yoder became chairman this spring of a House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, putting him at the center of debates over Trump immigration policies.

Democratic Congressional candidate Sharice Davids talks to volunteer Pat Daniels at her campaign office in Overland Park, Kansas, October 1, 2018. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Rich Kaufman, a 78-year-old math tutor, echoed fellow Democrats’ view of Yoder by calling him a “pawn of Trump.” But David Wristen, a 76-year-old retired bus driver, is a registered Republican who professed to “despise Trump.”

In recent weeks, both Davids and Yoder have stressed health care as an issue, particularly protections for consumers with pre-existing medical conditions. Davids criticizes Yoder for voting repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law Obama championed, which protected such consumers from being denied coverage.

“They’re connecting with what we’re talking about,” Davids said during an interview, referring to voters.

Davids has said she’s willing to vote for single-payer government health insurance but wants to tackle more immediate issues, such as prescription drug prices. Yoder’s latest television ad suggests a single-payer system would threaten protections on pre-existing conditions and care for people with rare medical conditions. The congressman was not available this week for a telephone interview.

His ad features a mother who says she’s nervous that Davids wants to “put the government in charge of our health care decisions.” It’s an argument that has resonated with Kansas voters previously.

Kris Van Meteren, a principal in a Kansas City-area direct mail firm that works with Republicans, though not Yoder, said he has a hard time with why the district’s voters “would gravitate toward somebody who’s so far out there as Sharice Davids.”

But, after describing Yoder as a “pretty predictably vanilla Republican,” he added, “And maybe in this very, very polarized environment, people are not down with vanilla anymore.”

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