Michelle De La Isla was far from home on a recent campaign stop in Fredonia.
The small town in Wilson County had roughly 50 times fewer people than Topeka, where De La Isla is mayor.
An older veteran stepped to the microphone tentatively, asking her if he could voice a "really tough question" he had about her candidacy for the 2nd Congressional District.
The issue was one that the mayor heard frequently campaigning in rural swaths of eastern Kansas: The man had heard the narrative that Democrats wanted to take their firearms.
"It is pretty simple," De La Isla said of her response. "We want to be sure that our officers, just like in my community, don’t have to figure out where 111 firearms went that were picked up from a car. And that the individuals who have access to these firearms are the people who should have access to them."
The response of the attendees, De La Isla said, was striking.
"You should have seen their faces," she said. "They were like ’Yeah, I get that.’ "
The interaction underscores the tension facing De La Isla in her campaign and the opportunity the 44-year-old believes exists for Democrats in the race.
If the party is going to find success in the 2nd Congressional District, they will need to win over both the veteran in Fredonia and residents in De La Isla’s hometown of Topeka in equal measure.
It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that they could walk that tightrope — Democrat Nancy Boyda represented the district from 2007 to 2009, although its exact boundaries changed with the last round of redistricting.
But the party could not capitalize on a favorable electorial landscape in 2018. Democrat Paul Davis fell less than 3,000 votes shy of beating a Republican, Steve Watkins, who had been rejected by party leaders during the primary.
Hopes of flipping the seat in 2020, meanwhile, were dented when Watkins fell to State Treasurer Jake LaTurner in the primary election, following a hotly contested campaign that included Watkins’ indictment on mail fraud charges.
LaTurner is a formidable opponent and has been backed by many as a rising star in the party. The National Republican Campaign Committee has tapped him as part of its Young Guns program for promising young candidates and most observers believe him to be the favorite.
LaTurner’s campaign has been aggressive in attempting to portray De La Isla as too radical for the district.
"We’re going to give voters a clear choice," LaTurner said after the primary election last month. "There are big differences between Mayor De La Isla and myself and they want to go in the direction that represents their values."
De La Isla is up against a baked-in disadvantage: Republicans have 60,000 more registered voters in the district than Democrats.
Geography is also a challenge.
The sweeping 2nd Congressional District spans 25 counties and runs the length of the state. It encompasses everything from urban Topeka to college towns in Lawrence and Pittsburg to rural Neosho County.
That means conversations about guns or police reform or abortion look very different depending on where you are.
"That’s the needle that has to be threaded" for Democrats, said Bob Beatty, chair of the political science department at Washburn University. "Trying to excite your base while also not turning off moderate voters."
Davis, the Democratic nominee in 2018, said that there are other nuances, unique to the district and many of its communities, that makes threading that needle tougher for a candidate
The district spans three TV markets, meaning campaigns buying ad time will need to pony up in Topeka, Pittsburg/Joplin and, most expensive of all, Kansas City, Mo.
But other parts of the region require different strategies. Leavenworth is technically part of the Kansas City media market but has a distinct local culture, fed by out-of-towners who work at Fort Leavenworth.
And in Montgomery County, down by the Oklahoma border, residents are unlikely to find their communities reflected on local news, which comes from Tulsa, Okla.
"It is a district that has its challenges in communicating with voters," Davis said.
And as voter registration in the region has plummeted in recent years, organizing has been even harder for Democrats.
Mike Brunner, chair of the Allen County Democratic Party, said that is starting to change.
"In recent years some of our county parties have fallen into a bit of decay but in the last five years they’ve come back, pretty strong actually," he said.
Only one county in the region lacks a county party and the infrastructure to conduct voter outreach is coming back slowly but surely.
And while Democrats remain outnumbered by a 2-to-1 margin in many counties, Brunner said 2018 underscored the importance of the rural parts of the district.
"[Davis] lost that race by about one vote per precinct," Brunner said. "And just a tiny improvement in the rural counties would have made the difference."
In order to succeed in the district, Democrats will need a strong fundraiser, officials agree, with a compelling background that can appeal to a wide swath of voters.
The party believes they have that in De La Isla.
The first Latina mayor of Topeka, De La Isla moved from New York to Puerto Rico to Kansas growing up. Homeless as a teenager, she later completed college at Wichita State and became active in the local nonprofit community.
She was first elected to the city council in 2013 before rising to mayor in 2018.
"She is a candidate that a lot of people are enthusiastic about," Davis said. "She has a unique personal story."
Getting that story out, however, has not been easy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although De La Isla has recently restarted in-person events, such as the one in Fredonia, she admitted the limited physical face time with voters has been difficult.
Without the pandemic, she said she would have likely crisscrossed the district’s confines several times over.
Brunner noted that there are a rising number of young, unaffiliated voters in southeast Kansas, with independents in some cases outnumbering Republicans among those in the 18-25 demographic.
Those voters are impressionable and "open minded," he said, but with Democrats minimizing in-person campaigning due to the pandemic reaching them is a tougher task.
"She’s not going reaching nearly as many people as certainly we would like her to meet," Brunner said.
But when encounters with voters do happen, De La Isla said, the notion that the district’s residents are different falls by the wayside.
She said that education funding, a robust response to the COVID-19 pandemic and protecting health care for those with pre-existing conditions were top priorities for residents everywhere.
There was also a stop De La Isla made in Yates Center, where town officials are looking at ways to keep businesses and jobs in their downtown areas.
That is exactly the same battle that Topeka officials are fighting in the capital city, she said.
"Everything in the district rhymes, you’d be surprised," De La Isla said. "’Michelle is from Topeka’ and ’Michelle happens to be a mixed-descent female’ — it hasn’t come up once."
Past Democratic candidates for the 2nd Congressional District agree that there is more unifying the district than meets the eye.
Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Topeka minister who challenged then U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins in 2012, said he never felt as though voters in southeast Kansas held his urban ties against him.
But campaigning in that region requires different tactics, he said, noting that "retail politics is much more important there."
"I got the sense that, down there, people need to get to know you better before they’re willing to vote for you," Schlingensiepen said. " ... They are communities that have been tight knit for many generations."
No candidate has hit the airwaves with television ads yet. But the LaTurner campaign has been trying to tie De La Isla to prominent liberals, such as Elizabeth Warren, in social media posts and news releases.
Beatty said that the best way for De La Isla to counter that narrative was simple: be yourself.
"There can be a danger in overthinking it and that is why a district like this is so tough," he said. "A candidate might be tempted and might not end up exciting their own base."
De La Isla concurred with Beatty’s sentiment, saying that she felt the issues voices by voters "are the issues I am concerned about as well."
"I think that when people play politics and tailor their message, they get into trouble," she said. "I am not so much concerned about sounding like a Democrat or a moderate or a Republican. I am concerned about sounding like the people I want to elect."