TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder and his Democratic challenger are having a hard time keeping their political footing on immigration issues, complicating their efforts to win a competitive swing House district in Kansas that President Donald Trump narrowly lost.
Yoder is under pressure from the right despite an endorsement from Trump, and he backed away this week from supporting a Democratic proposal to ensure that immigrants fleeing domestic and gang violence can claim asylum.
Democrat Sharice Davids continues to battle GOP ads that say she supports abolishing ICE. She did say that during a liberal podcast interview in July but has disavowed that position, including in a recent television ad.
“The sweet spot is so hard to find, even in the best of times,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the pro-immigrant America’s Voice, a frequent Trump critic. “The Sharice Davids-Yoder race is kind of a microcosm.”
Davids and Yoder are running in a Kansas City-area district that has fast-growing, conservative suburbs; older, centrist suburbs, and diverse, heavily Democratic city neighborhoods. More than 81 percent of its residents are white; 11.7 percent are Hispanic, and 8.6 percent are black. Democrat Hillary Clinton’s margin in the 2016 presidential race was 1.2 percentage points.
Davids is generating national attention because of her unusual profile as an LGBT and Native American lawyer and mixed martial arts fighter. Yoder, seeking his fifth term, became chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security in May, boosting his visibility on immigration issues and role in funding decisions.
Yoder received Trump’s tweeted endorsement in July after House Republicans unveiled legislation including money for Trump’s wall on the Mexican border.
On the left, Yoder already was considered a solid Trump ally. Weeks before, several hundred pro-immigrant demonstrators had rallied outside a district office and local officials had pressured him to demand the end of the Trump administration’s soon-to-be dropped policy of separating parents and children when families tried to cross the Mexico border illegally.
But the homeland security funding measure that cleared committee also contains Democrat-backed provisions on immigration law that have riled Breitbart News and hard-right commentators such as Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. Conservatives attacked the asylum proposal, and Yoder said this week it will be dropped; Davids’ campaign called it a flip-flop.
“I’m trying to find something that can pass Congress that will be consistent with our hopes and promises to have better border security while recognizing that legal immigration is an important part of our economy and our country’s future,” Yoder said during in a recent interview.
The district’s mix of voters includes Republicans like 45-year-old Andrea Baker, an optometrist who said she favors strong borders.
“And I would expect the same if I went somewhere else, to another country, that I would go through the proper processes,” said Baker, who hasn’t decided which candidate to support.
Davids has said she favors comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. She worries that debates too often treat all immigrants as a potential national security problem, dehumanizing them.
The first-time candidate stumbled over whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be abolished, a rallying cry on the left that has polled poorly . Her answer in the July podcast prompted a post-primary GOP super PAC ad; she responded with an ad saying she does not support abolishing the agency.
Davids also immediately pivoted to family separations at the border.
Yoder decried the policy publicly and wrote a critical letter in June to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions shortly before the practice was dropped. But Davids has criticized him for not going further, and she said he’s not been a leader on bipartisan immigration reforms.
In addressing the July podcast, Davids issued a statement: “What I also believe — and what I was addressing — is that the practice of ripping families apart at the border is inconsistent with our core values as Americans and an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.”
Rachel Chick, a 35-year-old Democrat and mother of two, does not support abolishing ICE but called family separations “extremely hard to watch.”
“I don’t want to disregard that people are looking for opportunities here and are trying to make things better for themselves,” she said.
Meanwhile, critics of the homeland security funding bill Yoder helped craft remain vocal on the right — and include Kris Kobach , the GOP’s conservative nominee for governor.
The funding bill contains $5 billion for physical barriers along the Mexican border.
But the legislation also would protect young immigrants from deportation and allow visas year-round for guest agricultural workers, rather than making the visa program seasonal.
Critics consider the asylum provision problematic, arguing that asylum is legally designated for refugees persecuted for their race, ethnicity, religion or political views.
They also contend the immigration provisions collectively undercut border security.
“You’re creating these problems, and then you’re trying to sort of patch those problems up by doing better border security?” said David Inserra, a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. “You’re sort of canceling out your own efforts.”