Dedrie Hawkins watches the Wyandotte County Juneteenth Parade from the folding chair she has propped up on the corner of 18th Street and Parallel Parkway. June 14 has turned into a steamy day, and she sits in the sun as marching bands and Shriners move along hilly 18th Street, in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas.
Hawkins describes herself as a political observer, and she knows that various people seeking public office are on the route today. Most, like judges and state representatives vying for re-election, sail on by from the comfort of their automobiles, waving at the crowd and letting political signs affixed to their vehicles do the talking.
Then there's the tall, rail-thin man in jeans, sneakers and a button-up shirt crisscrossing 18th Street on foot, shaking hands with folks standing along the parade route.
He reaches Hawkins, a General Motors employee, and greets her. She has never heard of Paul Davis, candidate to unseat Gov. Sam Brownback.
"Is he a Democrat or a Republican?" Hawkins asks no one in particular as the candidate returns again to the parade route and crosses Parallel Parkway.
It's a fair question for Hawkins to ask. She's the secretary of the United Auto Workers Local No. 31. The labor union is getting ready to screen candidates for the upcoming midterm election, and it is unlikely to endorse Brownback, now on his quest for another term. She holds the governor at least partly accountable for a plague of disinvestment she can point to in Wyandotte County: the closed-up grocery stores, the frozen development. "As for education," she adds, "we're not going anywhere.
"I'll tell you, if Kansas City, Kansas, can get a Democratic governor, we'll support him," she says.
Davis is running as a Democrat. But for many like Hawkins, he's still an unknown. Published polls reveal that, while Davis is running a closer-than-expected race against the well-known Brownback, his name recognition has lagged.
Davis tells The Pitch that he thinks he's running a visible campaign. If nothing else, it's a mobile campaign — one that has stopped so far in Wichita, Galena and places in between.
"We have spent a lot of time getting around the state," he says. "It's a slow process of getting better known, and I think that we are doing very well at that."
Davis, a lifelong Lawrence resident and the top Democrat in the Kansas House, got off to that slow start in part because of a long legislative session that didn't end until May, making campaigning difficult.
But signs have emerged that he will run a far closer race against Brownback than many had predicted when he announced his candidacy in the middle of 2013. A slew of public polls over the past month show that Davis is within the margin of error, and in some cases even leads Brownback. Some, like those from Public Policy Polling, which consistently show Davis with a strong chance of beating the incumbent, have a reputation for left-leaning push polls. Other pollsters have told The Pitch that public-poll results for the Davis-Brownback race track well with private, unpublished polling numbers.
Brownback's campaign, which describes the sitting governor as a Reagan Republican, in contrast to an Obama-style Democrat, has been dismissive of polls. But it may be harder to ignore Davis' campaign fundraising, which is closing the gap between the candidates (especially if you set aside a $500,000 loan that Brownback running mate Jeff Colyer donated to the re-election effort).
Meanwhile, considerable attention around the country is being paid to the Kansas governor's race. That's not because of Davis — and he may not necessarily benefit from it.