How a tech-savvy grandma is trying to lead Kansas Democrats out of the wilderness

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Joan Wagnon and Barack Obama supporter Stuart Yoho entertain the crowd at the Kansas Caucuses in Topeka, Kansas in 2008.  (Chuck France/AP Photo)

TOPEKA, Kan. — Four years ago, Joan Wagnon was a 70-year-old grandmother preparing to retire after decades of public service. A centrist Democrat long credited as blazing the way for women in politics in Kansas, she spent 12 years in the state Legislature and four years as mayor of Topeka — the first and only woman to hold the job. After eight years as state secretary of revenue, Wagnon was preparing to hang it up when "the massacre" happened.

On Election Day 2010, Sam Brownback, a two-term, hard-line conservative U.S. senator and a 2008 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, won the governorship in a landslide. It was part of a historic GOP sweep in the state in which Democrats lost every statewide office, every race for Congress and more than a dozen seats in the state Legislature. Out of the 125 state House districts, Democrats went from 49 seats to just 33, a historic low.

Around the state, Democrats were stunned and demoralized. While Kansas was considered among the reddest of red states, a place where the GOP had long ago claimed a clear advantage in voter registration, many elected Democrats had survived the political shift because of crossover support from moderate Republicans who voted their gut instead of the party line. With that support seemingly gone, many people wrote off the Democratic Party for dead.

But Wagnon, a nurturing but no-nonsense woman who has the get-it-done air of a Girl Scout leader, just couldn't believe that Democrats would roll over and die. Where was their fight, she wanted to know. Wagnon knew firsthand that it was possible to overcome long odds in Kansas. She'd run and won as a proud Democrat decades earlier in a conservative state where many still believed a woman's place was in the home, not in the government. She knew Kansas had more of an independent streak than people gave it credit for, and no matter what had happened in 2010, she refused to believe it was gone.

Stephen Muehleisen, left, of Great Bend, Kansas, talks with Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon, right, after filing for the Kansas House as a Democrat in 2012, at the secretary of state's office in Topeka, Kansas. (John Hanna/AP Photo)

Still, she tried to move her party's problems to the back of her mind — until an interview she read with one of Brownback's top aides fired up her sense of righteous indignation. The aide vowed to stomp whatever remained of the Democratic Party in Kansas into oblivion. Wagnon, who is Midwestern nice but still has some Southern fire running through her veins as a native of Texarkana, Ark., was enraged. "Over my dead body," she thought.

To the shock of her family and friends, Wagnon put off retirement and took on the job literally nobody wanted: state chair of the Democratic Party. "You have finally gone off the deep end," one incredulous friend told her, and her family repeatedly tried to talk her out of it, convinced it was a job doomed to failure. But Wagnon couldn't be talked out of it. Somebody had to save the party — or at least try. "I just couldn't let it go," she recalled in an interview at her office in Topeka.

Four years later, Kansas has become the unlikely battleground for two of the most closely watched races in the country ahead of next Tuesday's midterm elections. Longtime GOP Sen. Pat Roberts is fending off a stronger-than-expected challenge from Greg Orman, a businessman and former Democrat who is now running as an independent. And Brownback is in the fight of his political life, trying to win a second term as governor against Paul Davis, a moderate Democrat who is the minority leader in the state House. Polls show both races in a statistical dead heat heading into Election Day.

At the center of it all is the Kansas Democratic Party, officially back from the dead and in the once unimaginable position of possibly reclaiming some of the seats it lost in 2010. Some of that is luck: The Republicans' political troubles have made them easy targets, especially Brownback, whose perceived overreach in tax and social policies has alienated many of the GOP swing voters who were so crucial to his 2010 victory. But Democrats likely wouldn't have been in a position to capitalize on the opening had it not been for the pluck and determination of Wagnon.

"This didn't happen by accident," said Bird Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who grew up in the state. "Brownback has provided lots of ammunition, but Joan is a tough cookie. She didn't have to do this job, but she did, and she's worked very, very hard and hired the right people to get the party going in the right direction."

Yet the most notable thing about Wagnon is not her partisan loyalty but rather her methodical, disciplined effort to rebuild and modernize the party. Over the past four years, a woman who still sometimes needs help updating her Facebook status has become an unlikely evangelist for using technology and data to turn out the vote.

The 2008 campaign of Barack Obama famously rode Big Data all the way to the White House. But Wagnon didn't become a convert till a few years later, when she stumbled on a book about the science of targeting and turning out voters.

Trying to woo voters using behavioral psychology — including methods like telling people their neighbors have already cast ballots in hopes that peer pressure might drive them to the polls — has worked in urban environments but is still relatively untested in smaller-scale races at the state and local levels, where people tend to be less engaged than they would be in presidential contests.

Wagnon is a true believer. The Kansas Democratic Party occupies a tiny office inside an old converted hotel in downtown Topeka where a giant vintage sign of a blue and red jayhawk on the roof competes on the skyline with the dome of the state Capitol a few blocks away. In her tiny office, two giant sheets of paper marked up with what look like algebra problems hang on a wall. They are intricate diagrams of how the party is using data in the final days of the campaign to identify and turn out voters.

Over the years, Wagnon has brought countless candidates and party officials from across the state and up and down the ballot to The Wall, where she's preached the value of data-driven campaigning as the savior of the party. Scientifically pinpointing Republican voters who might be willing to support a Democrat is the way they will win, she has argued.

To the candidates, Wagnon has boiled down the message simply: "I tell them if we do this, you can afford to do two or three or four mailers targeted to people who might actually vote for you," she said. "Or you can spend all the money you have, do one big mailer and cross your fingers that it might work." So far, most people have opted to try her way.

Wagnon has spent most of her life in politics in one form or another. She was the older of two daughters of parents who weren't politically active but taught her to care about the world. Her father was an electrician, and her mother ran a business. Joan was the first in the extended family to go to college, and it was there she had her political awakening, watching a young John F. Kennedy run for president. She later married a college professor and they moved to Topeka, where he had gotten a job at a local university.

Memorabilia in Joan Wagnon's office in Topeka, Kansas, October 30, 2014. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

She broke into elective politics in the 1980s, when her local state House member abruptly quit the race two months before Election Day. Wagnon, who was about to turn 42, decided to make a last-minute run and didn't allow herself to be discouraged by people who told her she was nuts. Even the state Democratic Party chair at the time refused to give her campaign a donation. "You can't win," he told her. "It's too late." But she ran anyway and won — the first of many times over the years she beat the odds.

At the time, candidates were dependent largely on massive printouts of voter rolls available at the local election board — data one had to go through by hand so that potential supporters could be targeted via door-to-door outreach or through phone calls and mailers. It was more than a decade later when Wagnon and two female colleagues, including future Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, set out to buy their first computer. (They asked for a group discount.) "I think we thought we'd better check out this thing and see what it was about," Wagnon recalled wryly.

But she never really considered how technology might change campaigning until decades later, when she took over the task of rebuilding the state Democratic Party in early 2011. By then, almost the entire paid staff had moved on, leaving it up to her, an unpaid volunteer, to get the house in order.

In her quest to understand the workings of modern campaigns, Wagnon stumbled on an early excerpt of a book by the journalist Sasha Issenberg detailing how operatives were increasingly using a mix of data and behavioral psychology to turn out the vote. Wagnon was hooked, and when she led a national search to find a new executive director, she focused on finding someone who also believed in the power of technology. She found her man in Jason Perkey, a former employment-discrimination attorney from Kentucky who had quit his job in Washington to join the Obama campaign as an organizer in 2008.

Perkey, now 39, and Wagnon bonded almost instantly — a relationship that is almost like that of a mother and son. "I know how to make cornbread right," Wagnon joked, about luring a Southerner to the Midwest.

They had their work cut out for them. Fundraising had fallen off, and the party infrastructure was almost nonexistent. Ahead of the 2012 campaign, the party struggled to field candidates. Nobody wanted to run as a Democrat.

The national party was not exactly heavily investing in the future of Kansas Democrats. In 2011 the party received a little over $100,000 from the Democratic National Committee — a minuscule payout as part of former Chairman Howard Dean's project to build up party infrastructure in all 50 states. When Wagnon pressed the DNC for help again and again, her calls went unanswered.

Joan Wagnon in her office in Topeka, Kansas, October 30, 2014. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Still, she and Perkey pressed on and started to make real progress. Together, they became kind of a dynamic duo of data. They have traveled all over the state, preaching the gospel of data to skeptical Democrats and handing out copies of Issenberg's "The Victory Lab" as their bible. Among their converts: Paul Davis, who is working with the state party on voter-targeting methods in his race against Brownback in hopes of turning out Republican moderates.

So far, Wagnon and Perkey are cautiously optimistic about their efforts — even as the party and its candidates are being dramatically outspent in the final days of the campaign. Republicans and their supporters have bombarded local television and radio with wall-to-wall attack ads. "If we lose, and I don't think we will, it will not be because of data," Wagnon said.

There's been one notable show of confidence: Earlier this week, the DNC cut the party a check for a few hundred thousand dollars. It was preceded by a phone call from DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who told Wagnon to call her if she needed any other help. "I have her cellphone number now," Wagnon said with a smile. "That's progress."

In the run-up to Election Day, Wagnon has been working day and night trying to push her candidates to victory. While she's relying on data to help, some of her methods are still decidedly old school. On her desk is a yellow notepad scrawled with a dozen or so state legislative races in which she believes Democrats have a good chance of winning. There are names added and names scratched off and others added back again. Somewhere she had a spreadsheet with it all, but writing it by hand has seemed easiest, and every morning she goes through her list, checking on her candidates, making sure they are using the data the party gave them. Like the Midwestern mom she is, Wagnon dotes on them like a mother hen with her chicks.

Now the only unknown is the success of what she calls their "grand experiment," cheekily using the same language Brownback used early on to describe the sweeping tax-cut policies that now threaten his political future.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, Wagnon is already planning to get back to work next week. Soon she'll be getting the party ready for 2016. But her term ends in February, and she's already given notice that this time she truly is going to retire. Friends and colleagues are skeptical.

"I am really going to do it this time," she insisted. "Maybe."