May 3—TOPEKA — Dozens of Republican activists huddled in a crowded conference room in Manhattan last month to plot the ouster of Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids, whose hold on the 3rd Congressional District prevents a GOP monopoly in the state's federal delegation.
One strategy: Unite behind a candidate early to avoid a costly primary fight and count on the GOP-controlled Legislature to draw new district lines more favorable to Republicans.
New lines will be essential if the party rallies around a candidate who lost to Davids by 10 points just six months ago, former Cerner executive Amanda Adkins.
"I think the party's going to coalesce around Amanda Adkins," said Republican National Committeeman Mark Kahrs in an interview at the party's state convention in April.
Kahrs attributed Adkins' 2020 loss to a contentious primary, which forced her to spend down resources, a pitfall Republicans hope to avoid in 2022.
"Many times members of Congress have to run more than once. She's built up the structure, she has a capacity to raise money, she's a tireless campaigner and she's a perfect candidate for the 3rd District," Kahrs said.
Kahrs said a key piece of the strategy will be registering new voters and "the new map in the 3rd district will play a big role in taking back that seat."
It's no surprise that the GOP supermajorities in the statehouse will pursue maps favorable to Republicans. What's striking is the party's willingness to discuss it so openly. Some members worry that statements like Kahr's could be the basis for a legal challenge on allegations of gerrymandering.
The U.S. Census Bureau confirmed last week that Kansas will retain its four congressional districts, but the state won't receive more specific data to guide redistricting until later this year.
The 3rd District as currently drawn takes in all of Johnson and Wyandotte counties and part of Miami County.
States are required to have congressional districts of roughly equal population. Growth in the Kansas City metro likely means that the 3rd is too crowded and that some portion will have to shift to another district. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is likely to be at odds with the Republican-dominated Legislature over how to handle that change.
In 2012, the state's congressional maps were ultimately drawn by the U.S. District Court after legislators failed to pass a plan.
'My campaign will be better'
Adkins, a former state GOP chair, hasn't explicitly referred to redistricting. She's made general comments about how 2022 will be a more favorable year because she'll be able to connect Davids to President Joe Biden's administration. The president's party typically loses seats during mid-term elections.
"I will be a better candidate this cycle. My campaign will be better," Adkins told Republicans at the convention. "I'm not worried about message this cycle because our opportunity to contrast will be so great with Sharice Davids."
Adkins said she's sought advice from New Mexico Rep. Yvette Herrell and Florida Rep. Maria Salazar, two freshman Republicans who won in 2020 after losing their initial bids for Congress in 2018.
But both Herrell and Salazar lost their races by margins smaller than Adkins' 10-point deficit.
Some Republicans, skeptical that redistricting will be enough to turn a losing candidate into a winner two years later, want another option. State Rep. Chris Croft, an Overland Park Park Republican who currently chairs the committee that oversees redistricting, said at the convention he was "strongly considering" jumping into the race.
"Amanda is rolling out the same donors, the same endorsements, the same theme, and the same message. That's hardly the narrative to win over Republicans who are skeptical that the sequel will end any different than the original," said Jared Suhn, a Kansas GOP consultant who has advised Croft and worked for Adkins' 2020 primary rival Sara Hart Weir.
Adkins has collected endorsements from prominent Kansas Republicans, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Rep. Ron Estes, who urged unity around her campaign. In a statement, Adkins said in a statement that "the strength of their commitment to this effort is going to be key to putting Kansas 3 back on track for prosperity and opportunity."
She has also touted the endorsement of Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who supported Adkins last year. He is a long-time client of Axiom Strategies, the same Kansas City consulting firm used by Adkins.
Cruz was one of the leaders of the challenge to the 2020 Electoral College results, a connection that could be problematic in the swing district after Biden became the first Democrat to win Johnson County in decades.
Adkins' former primary opponent for the 3rd District, Adrienne Vallejo Foster, said at the convention that she believes the party should pick a candidate early.
"We do not need to be exhausting a lot of money on our primary," she said. "Amanda looks like she is the lead runner." She clarified in a text message a few days later that she wasn't endorsing Adkins.
Jacob Swisher, the Kansas GOP's chair for the 3rd District, said he believes primaries are good for the party.
"We actually saw within the primary process last year a significant increase in activists and individuals engaged in the party that are still engaged in the party that came from getting connected with one of the primary candidates," he said.
What does this mean for Wyandotte County?
Republican officials have already been clear that they expect newly drawn district lines to help their cause in 2022. Last year, former Senate President Susan Wagle urged Republicans to vote for GOP legislators so they could ensure a district that would knock Davids out of office.
Speaking at last month's Kansas GOP convention in Manhattan, Sen. Jerry Moran addressed an audience included Rep. Tracey Mann, the Salina Republican who holds his old House seat in the 1st Congressional District. Moran alluded to the possibility that Wyandotte County could be shifted from the 3rd to the 1st District, the most GOP-leaning district in the state.
"Tracey, you and I share the same congressional district. I read in the paper at least that it may include Wyandotte County, that will make it slightly different than what you and I've experienced, but we're anxious to see what that map might look like and how it has consequence to the voters of Kansas," said Moran, who expressed his commitment to ensuring Republicans hold all four House seats.
Wyandotte County is Kansas' most racially diverse and one of its most Democratic-leaning.
Moving it into the 1st would mean urban Kansas City, Kansas, would have the same representation in the House as rural western Kansas communities several hundred miles away along the Colorado border.
The idea would appear to flout the Kansas Legislature's guidelines, adopted in 2002, that say congressional and state legislative districts should be "contiguous, as compact as possible, and recognize and consider communities of common 'social, cultural, racial, ethnic, and economic' interests."
Democrats are already sounding alarms about the prospect.
Davids addressed the issue Monday during a call promoting H.R. 1, a bill that would ban partisan gerrymandering and establish independent commissions to oversee redistricting in every state.
"Unfortunately, it's been very clear. They have been explicit. The Kansas GOP does not seem to agree that voters should choose their representatives and not the other way around. They've been explicit in their motives about gerrymandering the congressional map and then at the state level they've been obviously explicit in their desire to restrict access to voting for all eligible voters," Davids said, referencing both the redistricting plans and election bills that Republicans will try to pass over Kelly's veto.
Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United and Let America Vote, said that Republicans nationally are talking about redistricting as way to take back the U.S. House, but she said the proposal to make redistricting nonpartisan are popular with voters across party lines.
If Republicans move forward with a plan to gerrymander the 3rd District, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group founded by former Attorney General Eric Holder, has pledged to challenge it in court.
"Instead of letting the voters decide, politicians are trying to protect their own personal interests. We are not currently engaged in litigation in Kansas right now, but it's one of the tools we are willing to use to protect voters and ensure they are not forced to vote in manipulated districts," NDRC spokeswoman Molly Mitchell said.
The NDRC has already filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Louisiana in anticipation of upcoming clashes over redistricting between those states' Democratic governors and GOP legislatures.
Racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But legal remedies for partisan gerrymandering are more limited after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in a 2019 Wisconsin case that claims of politically manipulated boundaries are a question beyond the reach of federal courts.
It would be easier for Republicans to move Wyandotte County to the Kansas 2nd Congressional District, which includes bordering Leavenworth County, but shifting the Democratic stronghold to that district could endanger freshman Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner.
With Kansas' congressional map still uncertain, some Republicans are worried about leaning too heavily on redistricting as a panacea.
Regardless of the 3rd District's final shape, it's likely to be built around Johnson County, the one-time GOP stronghold that has trended increasingly Democratic in recent elections.
"There are a lot of unknowns about redistricting this far out. But one thing we do know is that the 3rd will remain a heavily-suburban, Johnson County-centric district," said Eric Pahls, a Kansas Republican consultant who managed Sen. Roger Marshall's successful 2020 campaign.
"2022 will come down to more than district lines — it will come down to Republicans running smart campaigns, and returning to the messages that resonate with suburban families."