For Rep. Jason Probst, the waiting is truly the hardest part.
Probst, a Democrat from Hutchinson, is locked in a tight battle to retain his Kansas House seat. As of Saturday afternoon, he was hanging by a six-vote lead over Republican John Whitesel.
That tension he is facing is perhaps a fitting metaphor for what Democrats outside the state’s urban centers are feeling after Tuesday’s election.
While rural Democrats always face an uphill climb, many are feeling especially dejected after a race in which they felt they did things right.
"The national brand in this area is a big obstacle," Probst said. "If you’re a Democrat running locally in Kansas, you have to first overcome the perception that rural Kansas has of what a Democrat is before you even start talking about policy and where you stand on things."
But Probst, the western-most Democrat in state office, could well hang on to retain his seat. In a similar vein, some in the party believe their chances in more rural areas has not yet fully been wiped away.
"I think there is room to run those sort of candidates," said Christopher Reeves, one of Kansas’ Democratic National Committeeman. "You’re going to have to have the right kind of candidate who is prepared to run a very different Democratic race. The same kind of Democrat that is going to run in Johnson County is not going to win in these districts."
Democrat disappointment downballot
Democrats were buoyed by a 2018 election cycle where they made headway in beefing up their presence in the Statehouse, as well as sending Gov. Laura Kelly to the governor’s mansion.
They had their sights set on breaking GOP supermajorities in both chambers of the Statehouse. It seemed manageable – the party only needed a net gain of one seat in the Kansas House to break the veto-proof majority in that chamber, and a net gain of three seats to do the same in the Kansas Senate.
Democrats’ highest hopes had been a big night in Johnson County, where the thought was a suburban backlash to President Donald Trump that started last election cycle would lift legislative candidates again in 2020.
That was not to be – only a small minority of the seats that Democrats had targeted in suburban Kansas City, Kan., went their way. And when the dust settled, the party actually appeared to lose ground in the Kansas House, while holding steady in the Kansas Senate.
That was in large part due to struggles outside the state’s urban cores.
If Probst winds up losing his race, Democrats will have no representation in the Statehouse coming from outside the state’s urban centers in Wichita, Kansas City, Kan., and Topeka and its two college towns, Lawrence and Manhattan.
That comes after Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, and Rep. Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg, also lost on Tuesday.
Murnan was the last remaining Democrat from the southeast, an area which was once a strength for the party in the state.
Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius held her own in the region during her gubernatorial victories in 2002 and 2006, and Kelly managed to win Crawford County in her 2018 win.
It wasn’t just in southeast Kansas. Republican margins grew in other regions, as well – including traditional Democratic strongholds, such as the Topeka and Wichita areas.
But the swings were most dramatic in rural counties. When Kelly lost Finney County in 2018, it was by eight points. The margin of defeat for Bollier, meanwhile, was more than three times that number.
And Hodge argued that Kelly’s 2018 victory in Harvey County, which includes Newton, was in part thanks to the work of local Democrats like himself. Marshall, meanwhile, won the county by 13 points.
"We brought Laura Kelly along in Harvey County, dammit," he said. "She didn’t need to do much out here. I didn’t need to get weighed down by whatever liberal agenda she had to push. Us local candidates can help the statewide and national candidates if we exist."
But the two-term lawmakers also fell short Tuesday, losing to 23-year-old Republican Avery Anderson.
That’s despite getting more votes on Tuesday than in both his 2018 and 2016 victories.
The climate this time around, however, was different.
Big spending in U.S. Senate race backfires
While President Donald Trump’s presence on the ballot may have been a complicating factor for Democrats in some parts of the state, it had not been a death knell in the past.
Probst, Murnan and Hodge all easily won election in 2016, when Trump won Kansas by a wider margin than he managed this week.
But 2020 also brought with it a competitive U.S. Senate race.
Democrats, both statewide and nationally, circled the wagons to boost Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier in her bid against GOP Congressman Roger Marshall.
Bollier raked in a historic fundraising haul of over $20 million and had a bevy of national groups rush to her defense.
The problem, Hodge said, is that also brought out a similarly high level of spending from Republicans – which in turn drove historic turnout among conservatives.
That was difficult to overcome.
"The national party needs to stay the hell out of our districts," Hodge said.
The injection of those funds, he said, made even state-level races more tied to national level politics rather than about the case he was making to voters.
This was true elsewhere in Kansas too, experts say, and was perhaps most prevalent in the U.S Senate and Congressional races.
It isn’t even a new phenomena, said Bob Beatty, chair of the political science department at Washburn University.
"Republicans are good at nationalizing races," he said. "Making it not about Barbara Bollier or [2nd Congressional District candidate] Michelle De La Isla but Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. I can go back to when it was Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton."
In 2016, it was easier for liberal candidates to hammer away at Republicans in a post-Gov. Sam Brownback era, with the policies of the Republican executive deeply unpopular.
That option was not available to them this time around, and Probst said he got caught in the crossfire.
"This year was the exact opposite," Probst said. "The national races sucked all the oxygen out of the air and it made it hard for local candidates to figure out how to have their message resonate when all anyone wanted to talk about was the president and control of the Senate and national-level politics."
And while prevailing wisdom was that the COVID-19 pandemic would be a key argument for supporting left-leaning candidates in suburban areas, it had the opposite effect in rural ones.
While the state’s COVID-19 spread is most pronounced in western Kansas, that only began to occur relatively recently after positions on the state’s pandemic response had hardened.
Thus the counties that have been hardest hit by the virus in recent weeks turned out to vote in greater numbers – for Republicans.
"A lot of Democrats banked on the idea that COVID would drive home some votes," Reeves said. "And it did, in urban communities, bring home some votes. And in rural communities it might bring out Republican votes that are very much on the opposite side of where we are on the issue."
A way back for Democrats could get harder
It is no secret that being a Democrat in rural Kansas presents its own challenges.
"Democratic candidates have to work three, four times as hard," said Harvey County Democratic Party Chairwoman Arnita Haury.
But the path back for Democrats could get even harder with the next round of redistricting.
Republicans will have the upper hand in crafting those maps due to the veto-proof majority they were able to preserve, meaning that Kelly cannot reject what they put forth out-of-hand.
In the district Hodge formerly represented that would likely mean maps carving up Newton and North Newton, spreading out Democrat voters and making it harder for left-leaning candidates to find success.
But it is possible, some even say likely, that the maps will wind up in a protracted legal battle that could come before the Kansas Supreme Court.
There, liberals would have the upper hand, with a majority of justices selected by Democratic governors. Kelly will be able to add to those numbers in the coming month when she selects a candidate to fill the lone vacant seat on the seven-judge panel.
Despite uncertainty about the future, candidates expressed confidence that policies on issues ranging from agriculture to health care could resonate with voters in rural areas – if the party nails its messaging.
"They may pick up some seats out there in Johnson County but if they really want to gain a voice it is out here," Hodge said.
That is little comfort for the 2020 results, however.
"It’s not like we didn’t do the the work – it was out of the blue," he said. "Except it was red."