In the Kansas First Congressional District’s 145-year history, all but one representative have been Republican, and the district’s mostly rural voters have never elected a woman to the federal role.
But even in the traditionally Republican stronghold, Kali Barnett said she’s hopeful she can ride a wave of early momentum and increased voter turnout to victory at the polls in November.
Barnett, a music teacher from Garden City, spoke with The Mercury on Tuesday about her campaign, which is headquartered in Manhattan. She said she’s running on a platform focused on education, agriculture and the everyday lives of Kansans.
Barnett, a Friends University alumna, began her teaching career in Wichita but later moved to New York City in 2014 to work at a nonprofit called Education through Music, which brought music programs to an estimated 62% of the city’s schools that didn’t have music programs. She later worked for private and charter schools, before moving back to Kansas last fall.
In her cumulative experiences as a teacher, Barnett said she began to realize she wanted to do something more, especially for other teachers who sometimes felt stuck or without support.
“It was an overwhelming experience being a teacher in a system that’s not supportive of me, as a teacher and as a person,” she said. “I have loved my job being a music teacher, but these past couple years, especially in the fall of 2018, I started having conversations with my therapist about what I could do to have a positive impact other than being a music teacher in a classroom.”
Although Kansas allocates most of its state budget to education, Barnett said she hopes to improve federal support for education programs to help support teachers. That would include items like teacher mentorship programs or federal funds for co-teaching programs for teachers in their first year on the job.
A third-generation wheat farmer, Barnett grew up working the farm alongside her dad. But the farmland was sold during Barnett’s teenage years, and she said that put the family in a difficult financial place. Barnett’s father would die when she was 17 of a massive heart attack.
“It was the stress of losing the farm that killed him,” she said. “It broke his heart.”
With the suicide and bankruptcy rates of farmers at all time highs, Barnett said she also wants to advocate for farmers who were hurt by tariffs and a stagnant farm economy, calling federal policy’s effects on heartland farmers “criminal.”
“For the last three years, our farmers have barely been able to make ends meet, if they have, and the only way that they’ve been able to do that is with government assistance,” she said. “We cannot be in a situation where farmers cannot produce the food that we need and be able to make a living wage because of it.”
Barnett said U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, who holds the office currently, recently claimed at the Kansas Commodity Classic that Kansas farmers have never done better than under President Donald Trump. Marshall is running for the U.S. Senate seat that Sen. Pat Roberts will vacate in January.
“It was just a gross negligence to not even acknowledge how much our farmers are struggling,” she said.
Barnett said she wants to improve rural Kansans’ everyday lives, particularly in southwest Kansas. She said the region is the only quarter of the state that lacks a four-lane highway or four-year university, which has stifled economic development.
Still, Barnett said the region has prospered, especially in regional cities like Dodge City and Garden City. With increased support in areas like renewable energy and improved internet access, she said the region can continue to grow. Immigrants have become a significant population in the region, and Barnett said she wants to represent the diversity of voices in the region.
“A big part of my message is inclusion and love and respecting and appreciating the people we have here, who make up the fabric of what makes us Kansas,” she said.
Barnett said she’s carrying the momentum of having filed early in August, and she has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List. The political action committee, which stands for Early Money is Like Yeast, looks to spur pro-choice candidates by providing early funding to attract later success in their campaigns.
On the Democratic side, Barnett is running against Christy Davis, former executive director of the Symphony in the Flint Hills from Cottonwood Falls, and Brandon Williams, a Hutchinson Walmart manager. Republicans in the race include former Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann of Salina; state Rep. Troy Waymaster of Bunker Hill; Bill Clifford, a Finney County commissioner; and Michael Soetaert of Council Grove.
Through the end of 2019, Barnett’s campaign has raised over $164,000. Part of that is $104,000 that Barnett raised in the last quarter of 2019, which she said was the most any Democrat has ever raised in a quarter for that district.
“It’s putting us in fantastic running with the people running on the Republican side, and it’s one gauge to show that people are excited and ready for a change in the First District,” she said.
In a presidential year, Barnett said voter turnout could be high, and with strong Democratic candidates for other statewide offices on the ballot, downballot votes for Democrats could push the election in Barnett’s favor. Kansas’s recent elections in electing two Democratic women to the governor’s spot and another U.S. House of Representatives seat show Kansas is ready for change, she said.
“Kansas is progressive in so many ways, and I just know that the First District of Kansas is ready to elect a woman, someone who can be a positive voice,” she said. “I don’t even want to say that they’re ready to elect a Democrat, because I’m Kali, and I’m just someone who wants to make a positive change. I chose to run as a Democrat because I look at all of the things Democrats are fighting for, and I know that’s what Kansans need.”