Letter from America: Portrait of an elections party in America’s heartland

Just a few hours after the polls closed in the US’ mid-term elections, it was clear that the Senate would remain in Republican hands – but the House of Representatives would flip into the control of the Democratic party. At a “watch party” in Kansas, jubilant Democrats hailed the result as a sign that the tide is turning against the administration of President Donald Trump.

It wasn’t just the $9 “Knock-Out Punch” being sold at the bar that was injecting a special kind of energy into the air at the Olathe Hotel in Kansas on Tuesday night.

It was the fact that the crowd of several hundred people gathered there were waiting to hear if they had managed to pull off something rather extraordinary: electing the first gay Native American woman to represent Kansas in the House of Representatives.

To break it down further, Democratic Party candidate Sharice Davids straddled two separate “firsts” – the first Native American woman ever to serve as a congresswoman in America, and the first openly gay candidate to represent the state of Kansas. Davids also happens to be a former professional mixed martial arts fighter.

[caption id="attachment_112276" align="alignnone" width="1024"] OLATHE, KS - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic candidate for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids greets supporters during an election night party on November 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kansas. Davids defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)[/caption]

A T-shirt worn by a number of supporters on election night summed up Davids’ political identity in tongue-in-cheek fashion: “I stand with the radical socialist kick-boxing lesbian Native American,” it proclaimed.

Davids was a significantly unlikely candidate for Kansas: a solidly Republican Midwest state where football and church rule the roost, and farming is still a dominant industry.

A day previously, a former Republican state senator had expressed scepticism about Davids’ prospects, emphasising the fact that she was gay and Native American.

Now maybe she wouldn’t be out of place in San Francisco or Washington or New York, but that’s not usual for these parts,” he told me.

Thirty-eight-year-old Davids was a political novice running against a Republican veteran, Kevin Yoder, who has served four terms as a congressman.

But as the Olathe Hotel filled with supporters after Kansas polls closed on Tuesday night, there was a sense of conviction that Davids would prevail.

When initial results from Davids’ congressional race suggested an early lead for the Democrat, excitement mounted. Cries of “Sharice! Sharice!” intermittently went out through the hall, which was draped in Democrat blue. Pop music pounded, but all eyes were on the large TV screens broadcasting live election coverage from the national broadcasters.

This is more exciting than the football!” 68-year old Rich Robinson exclaimed.

I’m here because I resist the direction our government is going. I didn’t want to sit and watch the results come in at home,” Robinson told me.

Earlier in the day, a state election official confirmed that voting was taking place at a far higher rate than normal.

The voter turn-out so far has been 50% (of eligible voters),” he said. “To put that into perspective, the average voter turn-out for elections is 40%.”

At a polling station at a church in Wyandotte County, a steady stream of voters picked up pace after 3pm. One oddity of the American electoral system is that each state has the right to set individual voting methods. In Kansas, voters could choose between a paper ballot or the use of a touch-screen voting machine. Officials said everything was going smoothly.

Voters left the station wearing “I voted” stickers: a badge of honour in the most tightly-contested mid-term race in years.

Back in the Olathe Hotel, the appearance on screen of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was greeted with loud boos from the crowd. Though it was already clear that the Republicans looked set to lose control of the House of Representatives, Sanders was choosing to focus on Republican victories in the Senate.

The president spent the last week campaigning heavily for Senate candidates, and that has paid off,” Sanders said.

For once, it wasn’t “alternative facts”. When it came to the Senate, it appeared that the Democrats would fail to pull off shock upsets in the most closely-watched races.

But for the Democratic faithful gathered in Kansas, the focus was on the House of Representatives.

As Democrats, we are thrilled that the country realises it has made a mistake with Trump,” Donald Pile told me. Pile was draped in red, white and blue beads and sported an eye-catching rainbow shirt.

Gesturing to his partner, he said: “We’re a gay couple of 47 years. We support Sharice Davids because she is a real person.”

Fellow Davids supporter Robinson had a similar take on Davids as a candidate.

I felt she was very genuine. I went to a protest rally against the separation of parents from children at the border, and she was standing right next to me. She was the only candidate to show up.”

Davids campaigned on a fairly standard Democratic platform of expanding health coverage, tackling student debt, reforming immigration policies and tightening gun control. But her run for office also captured the imagination of young and first-time voters, who – together with minorities – turned out in record numbers for Tuesday’s election.

Just before 9.30pm, a bellow went up from the crowd. News broadcasters had called the congressional election in Davids’ favour, with a projected win of 53% of the vote against her Republican rival’s 44%.

People shrieked, danced, and hugged each other as they absorbed the news: Sharice Davids was going to Washington. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation – the Native American tribe to which Davids belongs – ran across the room with a banner bearing the Ho-Chunk crest. He received a roar of approval.

The 2018 mid-term elections in the US will be remembered as an election marred by some overt displays of racism – particularly in Florida and Georgia, where far-right groups produced automated phone calls featuring grotesque impersonations of the African American contenders in those states.

But the results simultaneously told the story of a different America. Davids joins the first Muslim women elected to Congress; the first Latina governor for the Democratic party; and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. These “firsts” may be long overdue, but they point to parts of a nation determined to forge a different path to the one chosen by President Donald Trump.

From that alone, there will be reason for hope to endure for Democrats.

If we can win in Kansas,” shouted a jubilant activist at the Olathe Hotel, “we can win anywhere!” DM

Rebecca Davis is in the US for the mid-term elections as a participant in the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Programme.