Sharice Davids, Kansas’ first openly gay, Native American nominee for Congress, was on her way to the hospital on Wednesday morning when she learned of her victory in the state’s third district Democratic primary.
After a long night of waiting for the final results on Tuesday, Davids had woken up early to visit two of her campaign staffers — Danielle and Cole Robinson — and meet their day-old baby daughter. Davids arrived at the hospital just after learning the results, and shared those first triumphant moments with a newborn child — aptly named Nina Sharice.
Davids’ decision to celebrate her campaign family before focusing on her historic win comes as no surprise to those who know her best.
“She’s just such a good listener, it’s who she is as a person,” Danielle tells PEOPLE, adding that introducing her daughter to her namesake was “very special.”
Davids, 38, believes that “listening” is one of her strengths as a candidate.
“There are so many people right now who feel like we’ve just been electing people who think they already have all the answers before they’ve even heard what people are dealing with,” she says. “We need to shift the paradigm of what we expect from our elected officials.”
A good ear isn’t the only tool in Davids’ belt. As a former mixed martial arts fighter, the nominee considers herself to be well-trained for the political battlefield. The skills she has developed through six amateur fights and two professional fights have proven advantageous in campaigns, she says.
“The discipline it takes to train and push past discomfort and continually grow through both trial and error and critique are things that translate really well into the process of running for office,” she says. “It’s funny that through learning how to physically fight, you also learn how to navigate really complicated and hard conversations with people.”
Reflecting on her position as the first openly gay and Native American nominee for Congress, Davids tells PEOPLE that she believes her victory shows how much her district is evolving.
“I think there are a lot of people here who really don’t agree with the impression you might get from the legislature or decisions that come out of the legislature,” she says. “People here don’t want folks to be treated as second-class citizens because they are part of the LGBTQ community.”
The Kansas legislature has passed laws that opponents have called discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. In May, the Kansas legislature approved a bill that permits faith-based adoption agencies to refuse same-sex couples on the basis of religious beliefs. Gov. Jeff Colyer signed the bill into law.
Davids says she felt accepted by her Kansas community growing up — though she attributes much of the respect and support she felt to her mom. Davids’ mother, who served in the military for 20 years, encouraged her to “just be me,” Davids says. So when she began to date a girlfriend in high school, it was not a big deal.
“It was just kind of, ‘Well, now I have a girlfriend,’ and it was fine,” she adds.
In a district with little ethnic diversity — Johnson County, the most populous center, is 87 percent white, according to the Kansas City Star — Davids says she would represent her constituents as a Native American if elected.
Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, has experience working on reservations; she spent time as a lawyer for an Native American reservation in South Dakota. The nominee also has experience working with the political elite: After growing up with a single mom, attending community college and graduating from Cornell Law School, Davids served as a White House fellow during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Her progressive credentials, however, did not make way for an easy Democratic primary battle. Davids ran in a crowded race, facing five opponents in eastern Kansas, including one who was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Together, the nationally-known duo campaigned for labor lawyer Brent Welder, who came in a narrow second place to Davids. But in the time since the primary election concluded, the Democrats have already come together, hosting a “unity” rally on Wednesday.
Welder announced that he will give Davids his full support in the general election, and Ocascio-Cortez tweeted her congratulations.
The united front comes in anticipation of a general election fight against incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder, a reliable Trump ally. According to FiveThirtyEight, Yoder votes in line with Trump’s positions 92 percent of the time. And in July, Trump personally thanked Yoder for his bill that would provide $5 billion for Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The district, however, did not vote for Trump in the 2016 election. While the state went for the sitting president, Hillary Clinton narrowly won the third district.
Davids’ general election strategy is still evolving (“It’s Day One of the General Election,” she says), but she is clear that her priorities will remain unchanged.
“I will reach out to as many groups as possible,” she says. “Ask questions and listen.”
While many eyes are on Davids to see if the candidate’s historic success might lead to a flipped House seat, Davids is confident that her connection with constituents signals something stronger: permanent, progressive change.
“It’s less of a wave and more of a rising tide,” she says. “It’s more long-term.”