The candidate’s smoothness and congeniality vanished. He crouched, ping pong paddle in hand, focusing full attention on his opponent. Suddenly, his mood turned serious.
Kevin Yoder came out of the gate with a big smile and a daunting 18-8 lead in a race to 21 points in a game against a reporter assigned to tell folks who, exactly, he is.
Predictably, Yoder talked politics, unexpectedly cracked jokes about his Amish roots arming him with wicked backspin, and then proceeded to smack winning shot after winning shot.
But when his opponent rattled off three straight points, Yoder’s voice betrayed the same killer instinct and burning competitiveness that’s marked his quick rise in politics.
“He’s coming back,” Yoder said, an edge to his voice.
The ping pong table in his well-kept campaign office in Overland Park isn’t far from a clock counting down to Election Day in his race for Congress. His staff watched the match intensely.
“OK,” Yoder said to himself, unleashing a serve followed by an impressive winner. Then he did it again. Only then did his face relax and the charm return.
With his 21-15 victory in hand, Yoder offered a politician’s polite condolences.
“You played really, really well,” he said. “I had home court advantage. That’s huge.”
The 34-year-old Republican attorney who hails from Hutchinson will tell you he’s not a politician, but his manner and his history suggest otherwise.
Competitive, funny and quick witted, Yoder has bridged the distance from KU fraternity house president to the state Legislature to candidate in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District with surprising ease and speed.
But along with the fast rise to political prominence comes a personality that generates strong reactions. Even his wife, who bristles at the criticisms common in campaigns, acknowledges not everyone likes her husband.
“I think they think he’s some kind of snotty Johnson County brat,” Brooke Yoder said. “And he’s not at all. He has extraordinarily humble beginnings, he’s worked extremely hard for everything he gets.”
A shy farm boy who often feared he would never make friends, he found comfort and meaning in the public approval of winning elective office and the responsibilities of leadership that followed.
His father, Wayne, was a Mennonite from Yoder, Kan., the son of a woman who’d been born Amish and become Mennonite later in life. Yoder’s mother, Susan, was the daughter of a prominent politician in a Chicago suburb. Her father was a die-hard Republican, and for the rest of his life he waged war against Roosevelt’s New Deal, an era he viewed as one of America’s most damaging.
“My parents met in Chicago at Evanston Hospital where my mother was a receptionist and my dad was working maintenance because, due to his Mennonite background, he was a conscientious objector to military service,” Yoder said. “So they put him in hospital service.”
His parents moved back to Yoder, where his father owned a farm, and they had three children: daughters Christine and Melanie and, in 1976, a baby boy.
“He was very shy, very, very shy as a kid,” said his mother, Susan Alexander. “It was the way he was born, with that shyness about him.”
There was a rugged beauty to farm life, and Yoder says it provided him with the traits that would shape his political future: A love of hard work, a belief that man can overcome anything through sheer willpower, a sense of how regular people live.
Still, it was far from perfect.
“It’s a hard life out on the farm,” Yoder said. “We were on free-and-reduced lunch growing up as kids.”
Another shock came when he was in the seventh grade: His parents divorced.
“He was hurt over the divorce, but I think he realized it was for the best,” his mother said.
Yoder moved to Hutchinson with his mother, where he was a bright kid but far from the class’ most charismatic character. He played tennis and excelled on the debate team but remained in many ways the same shy kid.
Just before he left to attend the University of Kansas, he turned to his mother for comfort. He was looking at a large, unknown world in front of him. He was terrified.
“He cried because he didn’t think he’d make any friends at KU,” his mother recalled. “I promised him he’d make friends at KU. I told him I’d make few promises about his life, but that I could promise he’d make friends at Kansas.”
On a large, strange campus, Yoder found a simple way to navigate the uncharted territory: Getting involved.
“I saw getting involved in KU’s campus as a way to meet people and sort of break down a campus that was huge — 25,000 people,” Yoder said. “And I found that as you joined groups, as you got involved, you developed families and friendship.”
It turned out he was good at this — at running for office, talking to people, digesting issues and understanding what folks want and how to get it for them.
As the years went by, Yoder steadily moved to the right on the political spectrum — starting as a Democrat in college, followed by a stint as a moderate Republican in the Kansas Legislature, and now a conservative just in time to fit the national mood.
It’s a series of changes some opponents attribute to ambition rather than a true believer.
“Even then (in college), clearly he wanted to be a professional politician,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at Kansas and a Democrat. “Even then he was trying to position himself — he’s always positioning himself.”
Yet Jay Shadwick, a former Johnson County Republican chairman, countered that Yoder’s one-time status as a Democrat puts him in good GOP company: “So was Reagan,” Shadwick pointed out.
Yoder rejects the notion that his views shift with the political winds.
“I think it was Winston Churchill who said, ‘If you’re not a liberal at 18 you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 40 you have no brain,’^” he said. “So you see a lot of people go through this liberal viewpoint in college and as they get closer to the real world or go to graduate school or pay their first mortgage or have to deal with the realities of the economy, cause and effect and those sorts of things, you’re perspective starts to change.”
By 2000, he was firmly Republican. He interned for David Adkins, a moderate Republican state senator, and then in 2002, straight out of law school, served as a state representative from Kansas’ 20th District.
Two years ago, Yoder was named chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
But he swears he’s not running for Congress out of political ambition. Instead, “when the call comes to lead, I stand up.”
“I enjoy the politics of it,” he adds. “I enjoy campaigns.”
Yoder sits in his campaign office, a huge banner behind him. It reads: “Campaign Cause.” It’s from when he ran and was elected student body president in college.
“My wife brought this down,” he says. “She wanted it to feel like the comforts of home.”
As Election Day approaches, Yoder dismisses critics’ complaints that he’s a political chameleon, that he’s too ambitious, that he’s just another politician looking to land a good gig in Washington.
He insists he’s not a politician.
“I see myself as a farm kid who went to the University of Kansas and really started to enjoy leadership and public service and when I got out said, ‘Let’s give this a shot.’^”
It’s a plausible answer, one that might be expected from, well, a politician. But even his supporters know Yoder has big plans. They embrace his views, his drive and his hunger. They believe he’s the best person for the job.
But when asked exactly what kind of Republican he is, Yoder declines to answer, insisting his views have been shaped by a flagging economy and what he sees as the best way to revive it.
“I think I’m a Republican who believes in limited government and cutting taxes and cutting spending,” he says, dismissing such labels as “moderate” or “conservative.”
On the lingering question of Yoder’s authenticity, critics point to a campaign ad they think reveals the candidate’s slickness. In one scene, he’s holding his wife’s hand and walking down a sun soaked stretch of Kansas farm land, several children strolling by his side. The warm and fuzzy moment could give the impression those kids are, well, his.
Except Yoder and his wife don’t have children. So is the spot a politician’s calculated lie, or much ado about nothing?
As with most things in politics, it depends on your point of view.
“Those are my nieces and nephews,” Yoder explains. “We feel our nieces and nephews are an important part of our family, of our campaign, and we love them.”
Yes, today Yoder is in many ways the same young man whose political star began to rise all those years ago, when he first felt that sense of joy at being chosen to run his fraternity. He’s ready to connect with the people and even takes barbs about the genuineness of his character good naturedly.
And he always has a ready reply to any question. Some might say just like a good politician.
“I’m someone who is very eager to offer all that I can,” Yoder says. “I’m someone who’s very energetic. I’m someone always on the go, who always wants to be doing something.”