TOPEKA, Kansas - With an unbroken 50-year streak of voting for Republican presidential candidates, Kansas is not a typical stop on Democrats’ national tour.
“Party chairs don’t come to Kansas,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the state’s last Democratic governor, who went on to serve in President Obama’s Cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human services.
But on an unseasonably warm Tuesday, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez came here to hunt for votes in his bid to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and to pledge that the party would no longer ignore rural areas.
In his first mission, Perez succeeded.
He picked up endorsements from Kansas Democratic Party Chairman Lee Kinch and Vice Chairwoman Kathryn Focke, both of whom are among the 447 members of the DNC who will elect a new leader later this month. And after a meeting in rural Wisconsin a day earlier, Perez earned the backing of state Sen. Janet Bewley, a DNC committeewoman from the Badger state.
Sebelius also announced her public support for Perez Tuesday. But like most of the high-profile figures who have endorsed in this peculiar race, she doesn’t actually have a vote.
What she could do was organize a meeting for Perez with about 20 of the state's Democratic officials, including the leaders of both chambers of the state legislature and several county chairmen. On the second floor of the headquarters of the state's teacher union, they munched on coffee, muffins and juice that Sebelius had provided while they discussed the plight of rural Democrats.
That goal, to rebuild the party outside major cities and blue states, will be much harder for Perez to accomplish, even if he wins the party’s election.
Democrats have been decimated in rural areas across the country, a phenomenon that has meant a slow-moving death sentence for the party in an electoral system where controlling broad geographic territory is just as important as winning votes.
“We frankly have a crisis of confidence and crisis of relevance in the party right now,” Perez told the group, which gathered around tables arranged a u-shape. “We’ve lost touch with a lot of voters.”
Perez called for a “culture change” inside the party, noting that the party has to be physically present in rural areas and that it can often come across as condescending.
“We ignored people,” Perez continued. “And it’s not just that people felt ignored, it’s that people felt affirmatively disrespected and looked down on.”
Perez, a career civil rights lawyer from a wealthy Washington suburb who spent years working in the federal government, is not an obvious ambassador to rural America. But then again, neither are most of Democrats’ prominent national leaders.
At a time when Democrats are emphasizing the need to win back white working class men, none of the party’s seven leading candidates for chairman is a straight white male.
“If I asked my volunteers to use an iPad, they’d think I was talking about a hygiene product,” Kenny Riffel, the chairman of the Democratic Party in rural Dickinson County, told Perezof his elderly volunteer base.
But in an interview after the event, Perez said he’s convinced Democrats can win back rural territory — or at least cut their losing margin in meaningful ways — by focusing on a core message of economic empowerment.
“Our message has been muddled, especially in 2016. Voters in Ohio heard from Trump, ‘I’m going to save your coal jobs.’ And while that was a lie, what it told them is, ‘I’m going to feel your pain,’” Perez said. “What they heard from the Democratic side was, ‘Vote for us because Donald Trump is crazy.’ I happen to think Donald Trump is crazy, but that’s not an economic message.”
In his controversial 2004 best-selling book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” Thomas Frank argued that Democrats were losing the white working class over divisive social issues like abortion and gun control, which conservative economic elites had successfully used to drive a wedge between those voters and the Democratic Party.
While its claims that Republican voters have been essentially duped to vote against their economic self-interest with social conservative bromides may not ring true for Trump, Frank did foresee the party’s loss of rural whites.
Now, Kansas may again offer a window into the future, demonstrating how Democrats can capitalize on backlash to an unpopular chief executive.
The party gained a surprising 14 seats in the state legislature last year, driven largely by opposition to unpopular Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who instituted some of the same kinds of hard-right policies that Republicans are now looking to put in place nationally.
“We may be once again ahead of the national trends,” said Sebelius as she cleaned up the snacks she had brought.
Less than a mile away was the state capitol, housing the offices of Brownback and Secretary of Chris Kobach, who has made a name for himself nationally by advising presidential candidates and other states on laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants and alleged voter suppression.
"You forced the re-calibration of Brownback and Kobach and all the backs that are breaking peoples’ back," Perez praised the assembled Democrats.
But Kansas Democrats are struggling with some internal division as well.
Like other Midwest caucus states, Kansas went heavily for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary last year. Sanders, who is supporting Perez’ chief rival for the DNC chairmanship, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, is expected to stump in Topeka later this month for candidates that are in some cases running against the party’s favored picks.
“We had Hillary supporters to the tune of 200 people and Bernie supporters to the tune of 700 people at our caucus site. We did not retain those 700 people,” fretted Levi Smith, the 25-year-old chairman of the Riley County Democratic Party, which includes Kansas State University, who supported Sanders.
Perez, who is seen as representing the party's establishment in his bid against Ellison, said it is the party's responsibility to make those people feel welcome.
“We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged and it was. And you’ve got to be honest about it. That’s why we need a chair who is transparent,” Perez said.
Sanders supporters alleged that the DNC scheduled presidential primary debates at inopportune times to prevent candidates other than Clinton from getting a chance to be seen by the widest possible audience.
Perez, who touted hiring both former Clinton and Sanders staffers, said that next time, the party should plan its debates before the candidates are in the race, “so there’s no question whatsoever.”
Later Wednesday, Perez clarified on Twitter that he "misspoke" about the primary process being rigged.
"Hillary became our nominee fair and square, and she won more votes in the primary — and general — than her opponents," he added.