Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla has a big decision to make. She is contemplating whether to run to be the Democratic nominee for Congress in the Kansas 2nd District. The Democrats have no viable candidate and many in the Kansas Democratic Party and the national Democratic Party are asking her — with some imploring her — to run.
The Republicans have two strong candidates: Incumbent congressman Steve Watkins and his primary challenger, Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner.
Topeka Mayor De La Isla will have pros and cons to consider as she gets closer to decision-time. First we start with the cons:
• It’s a tough district for Democrats: Since Jim Slattery left in 1995, a Democrat has only won once, when Nancy Boyda beat incumbent Republican Jim Ryun in 2006. Boyda only lasted one term and lost to Lynn Jenkins in 2008. In 2018, a year which saw Democrat Laura Kelly win the Kansas governorship and Democratic newcomer Sharice Davids beat an incumbent Republican in the 3rd District by 9 points, the Democrats couldn’t win in the 2nd District. Democrat Paul Davis, who had high name recognition due to his 2014 gubernatorial run, lost to little-known Republican Steve Watkins.
• The race will be dirty, dirty, dirty: Anonymous political action committees — what is known as “dark money” — along with national party committees, will dive into the race and run TV ads that will be negative, nasty, and probably quite vile. In the 2018 race, anti-Davis ads adorned him with the moniker “Sleazy Paul” and insinuated that young girls weren’t safe around the candidate.
• A badly run race has consequences: Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2019 and it did not go well. The media questioned the point of his candidacy, New Yorkers unhappy with him ran anti-de Blasio billboards in Iowa, his approval ratings in New York City plummeted, and he dropped ignominiously out of the race in September. De La Isla’s political career is on the upswing two years into her mayoral term, but future prospects could disappear if she’s seen to run an inept campaign.
There are, however, some pros:
• The Republican primary could help a Democrat: Incumbent Republican Watkins is being challenged by LaTurner in part because some, including former Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, see Watkins as being a weak candidate. In order to win, LaTurner will need to spend loads of money explaining Watkins’ problems. Watkins will do the same to LaTurner. The winner could be damaged going into the fall election.
• She could win: 2020 is looking to be unpredictable, with national events surrounding Donald Trump having the potential to negatively or positively impact congressional races. Mayor De La Isla fits the profile of many Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 who surprised people with their success. As a Latina female mayor who overcame difficult obstacles to get where she is, she is well-positioned to take advantage of a possible anti-Trump wave of new voters, which is exactly why national Democrats want her to run.
• Losing could still be a win: If de Blasio is a negative example, South Bend, Indiana, and 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is a positive one. Buttigieg has run a campaign for higher office that not only has put him in a position to win, but has garnered accolades from many for his intelligence, ideas, and organizational skills. Even if Buttigieg loses, his campaign has been successful by forging him into a more skilled and confident leader and elevated him from being an obscure mayor of a town of 102,000 people to national prominence. The same potential is there for the leader of a town of 126,000, known as Topeka.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.