TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A 19-year-old Kansas House candidate who admitted to circulating revenge porn and abusing young girls online narrowly won his primary race this month with an appeal to young, liberal voters in a safe Democratic district after having run for local office just a year earlier.
Aaron Coleman’s 14-vote victory shows how social media and door-to-door campaigning can rouse voters and overcome an incumbent’s fundraising advantage in a district that hasn’t seen a contested primary in years. It also demonstrates how a platform that includes defunding the police, providing universal health coverage, eliminating college tuition and legalizing marijuana resonates with many Democratic voters.
“You talk to him for two minutes, and you’re like, ‘Ah, yeah, this kid’s good. This kid’s got energy. He’s progressive,’” said Faith Rivera, a liberal Kansas City, Kansas, community activist who called Coleman “a monster” over his behavior toward women and girls.
Coleman’s Aug. 4 victory over seven-term state Rep. Stan Frownfelter in Kansas City, Kansas, put the Kansas Democratic Party in an unwanted national spotlight. The party disowned Coleman when a former girlfriend this past week said he was abusive to her, slapping and choking her in a late-December attack. Democrats are backing a fall write-in campaign by Frownfelter and talking of trying to block Coleman from being seated if he wins the Nov. 3 general election. No Republican is on the ballot.
Coleman, a community college student and dishwasher, did not return telephone, email or Facebook messages this past week. He recently tweeted that voters “nominated me, regardless of my sins.” In a June 17 Facebook post admitting that allegations of revenge porn, blackmail and harassing middle-school girls were true, he said he had been “a sick and troubled 14-year-old boy.” He has not publicly addressed the more recent allegations.
State Sen. David Haley, a fellow Kansas City, Kansas, Democrat, said Coleman is “no flash in the pan.”
Coleman ran as an independent write-in candidate for governor in 2018, one of several teenagers who leveraged the state’s lack of a minimum age for the office into media attention.
He also ran last year for a $900-a-month seat on the part-time local board that sets rates and the budget for water and electric services, in a primary against Frownfelter and two others, finishing last. Frownfelter placed first but lost in November after the field narrowed to two.
Frownfelter told voters last year that he planned to retire from the House, saying, “It’s time for me to leave.” Coleman quoted that statement in this year’s campaign.
Haley said the utilities board district is similar to the Kansas House district and Coleman stayed engaged to build a broader base.
“He’s savvy,” Haley said. “He knows how to do door-to-door and how to do social media.”
Haley also said Coleman represents “the future” and Democrats are sending a bad message to young voters by disowning him.
“If voters speak, and that’s the majority, we have to honor that,” Haley said.
Since Coleman’s 823-to-809 vote victory over Frownfelter, the incumbent and his allies have faced suggestions that, like many incumbents in long-safe districts, he didn’t work hard.
Frownfelter and campaign manager Brandie Armstrong said he knocked on enough doors to win. Frownfelter spent almost $15,000 on his campaign from January through late July, while Coleman spent about $2,200, according to their finance reports.
The incumbent said he believes older constituents who backed him didn’t vote, expecting that his victory was “in the bag.”
“I had an uneasy feeling out there,” Frownfelter said. “When I walked to the door: ‘Oh, we liked the kid. He had energy and that, but we know he’s not going to win.’”
But Chris Reeves, a Democratic National Committee member for Kansas, suggested the Kansas City area has “a lot of untapped voters.” He said when election outcomes seem set voter participation can wane over time. He compared Frownfelter’s loss to that of veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay in St. Louis.
Frownfelter, a 69-year-old small business owner, first won his House seat in 2006. Five of his seven previous House races were uncontested, and he had never faced a contested primary.
Reeves said many Democrats didn’t see Coleman as a serious candidate but that Coleman effectively marketed himself to voters who “took him at face value.”
Armstrong acknowledged that Frownfelter’s campaign ”didn’t push” information about Coleman’s past behavior.
“If you weren’t on Facebook, you had no idea about it,” she said.