Kansas is an Ayn Randian dystopia of voter suppression, measles epidemics, Handmaid's Tale fanfic masquerading as law, Isalmophobic terrorist cells, voting machine shenanigans, and economic collapse, all thanks to the far-right ideologues who paid for and control the state's legislature.
It's tempting to think of Kansans themselves as being of a piece with their state's stupid, racist, misogynist, greedy, and cruel policies, but when your votes are suppressed and your elections are stolen, you can't really be blamed for the laws your "representatives" make.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez trounced the right-wing, establishment Democrat Joe Crowley in New York, her ideological opponents dismissed the victory as a one-off, insisting that "democratic socialism" would find no takers in the midwest, despite the midwest's long history of embracing straight up socialism.
In fact, Kansans are ready for change. They've lived for years cheek-by-jowl with the Koch brothers, and have suffered a slow economic collapse under Governor Sam Brownbeck's mismanagement. Last year, James Thompson nearly won a special election in the Koch's Wichita district on a progressive, Sanders/Warren platform.
Now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are backing another progressive candidate in Kansas: Brent Welder, running on Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free public college, and forcing dark money out of politics. A February poll had Welder 7 points ahead of his GOP opponent, Rep. Kevin Yoder, whose campaign has been backed by Mike Pence.
Ocasio-Cortex and Sanders are bucking the Democratic establishment, who are pulling out all the stops to put a centrist, banker-friendly Democrat on the ballot. Welder's campaign has been funded by small-money, individual donations averaging $30. But Emily's List and other Democratic stalwarts are backing his primary opponent.
Welder said his agenda, freed from the shackles of corporate money, seeks to tangibly improve people's lives. "I want to make sure that every person has health care in America," he said, expressing support for a single-payer "Medicare for All" system. His endorsement of a $15 an hour minimum wage would almost double the current level of $7.25 in Kansas, and he believes increased wages would cycle through the local economy, rather than "sending it to a Wall Street bank or offshore account." And his pitch for debt-free college winks at his own experience: "My wife and I went to law school, and it wasn't cheap. And we still haven't paid the loans off."
The populist pitch has brought in more than just Bernie acolytes. Jason Kander, former Missouri secretary of state, voting rights champion, resistance hero, and dark horse presidential prospect, endorsed Welder last December. He's now running for mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, just on the other side of the district.
Though the district was almost evenly split between Clinton and Trump in 2016, Welder believes that the voters who will swing the election are yearning for a populist message. Though Clinton won the general election there, Sanders won the primary — one of only five Republican-held seats with that profile. "The swing voters are the people who voted for Obama twice and then Trump," Welder said. "When you talk to them about raising wages and benefits and protecting pensions, they will vote for the Democratic Party."
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders Are Trying to Prove Their Case in Kansas [David Dayen/The Intercept]