Democrat Michelle De La Isla launched her congressional campaign Monday by pledging to inspire bipartisan unity in the 2nd District and serve as a champion in Congress for constituents seeking access to quality health insurance and the benefits of economic development.
De La Isla, elected mayor of Topeka in 2017, had never sought federal office before declaring her bid for a seat in the U.S. House held by GOP Congressman Steve Watkins, also of Topeka. Watkins faces a primary challenge from Jake LaTurner, who serves as treasurer of Kansas.
"We all deserve an advocate," De La Isla said during a news conference. "I understand firsthand what it means to have struggled. My life is broken and imperfect. People in leadership just don't celebrate that."
De La Isla raised three children, endured treatment for cancer, went without health insurance and experienced homelessness. She was born in Puerto Rico and graduated from Wichita State University. In Topeka, her career has taken her from a credit counseling agency to Habitat for Humanity and the energy company Evergy. She was elected to the Topeka City Council in 2013.
She said her top priorities in Congress would be health care, job growth and infrastructure investment.
Bryan Piligra, spokesman for the Watkins campaign, said emergence of a Democrat in the field wouldn't alter Watkins' support for President Donald Trump or work on North American trade, immigration policy and defense issues.
"Fans of higher taxes and bloated government have gained another option in the race in Michelle De La Isla," Piligra said. "Congressman Watkins will continue to focus on the business of Kansans by standing with President Trump, helping with USMCA, and strengthening our borders and national defense."
LaTurner campaign consultant Pat Leopold said Kansas Republicans who want to prevent a Democratic takeover of the House seat were rallying to LaTurner.
"Mayor De La Isla will be a formidable Democrat candidate for Congress if Steve Watkins wins the Republican nomination," Leopold said. "If elected, she would be a reliable vote for Nancy Pelosi and a key piece of her attempt to keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives."
Dozens of De La Isla's supporters packed a downtown coffee shop to register their enthusiasm.
"It's amazing," said Mikki Burcher, who was co-campaign manager of De La Isla's successful race for mayor. "She's incredibly qualified, and I believe in her wholeheartedly."
Love Fellowship Church Pastor Marcus Clark said De La Isla had demonstrated her ability to be a powerful public servant and was correct to make access to health care a key element of her House campaign.
"It's a big undertaking," said Tobias Schlingensiepen, who ran unsuccessfully in 2012 for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House. "She's got the energy, the passion and the talent to be an extremely good representative."
Patrick Miller, professor of political science at University of Kansas, said De La Isla would be campaigning in a 25-county eastern Kansas district where a majority of voters were registered Republicans. He said it was useful to consider Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly carried the district in 2018 and former state Rep. Paul Davis lost the 2nd District congressional race to Watkins by less than 1 percentage point.
He said the 2018 victory by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat, in the 3rd District composed of Johnson and Wyandotte counties should serve as a reference point. Davids' district is more suburban and wealthier than the 2nd District, he said, but "exactly the mix that has fueled the backlash to Trump since 2016 and exactly the type of district that flipped the House to Democrats."
He said victory by De La Isla or another Democrat in the 2nd District would require a damaged Republican nominee, significant outside investment on behalf of the Democrat and a surge in interest among GOP swing voters in a candidate outside their political party.
"I don’t think that a Davids strategy is going to win KS2," Miller said. "If Paul Davis had actually won it, by several points it would have been the most Republican district that flipped to Democrats in 2018."
He said Democrats prefer to run against Watkins, and De La Isla needs to build a financial war chest and campaign infrastructure attractive to out-of-state donors. She must draw minority voters and college students to the polls and appeal to moderate voters in Shawnee and Leavenworth counties while limiting losses in small towns and rural areas, he said.
Joan Wagnon, former leader of the Kansas Democratic Party, said path to triumph for any Democrat in a district running through Pittsburg, Ottawa, Lawrence, Topeka and Leavenworth was a challenge.
"She has a good message and is very relatable personally," Wagnon said.