Bradley students take part in Kansas gubernatorial race featuring BU alum.
On a sunny Saturday early afternoon just before the November 2022 elections, a nervous Sarrah Denton knocked on the door of a house in Topeka, Kansas.
Within a matter of seconds, this Bradley University first-year political science major turned what she had read and learned about political campaigns into a hands-on experience in a real political campaign —the race for governor in Kansas, which had been in a statistical dead heat for months.
“When we walked away, I was definitely shaking from nervousness, but I think I did pretty okay my first time,” said Denton.
Denton and four of her peers — Emily Brouch, Levi Dearman, Melody Hampton and Azlyn Porter — were taking part in an innovative internship opportunity created by Bradley McMillan, executive director of Bradley’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service. Of the five, only Hampton has had personal political and campaign experience, most recently interning in the Washington, D.C. office of Congresswoman — and BU grad — Robin Kelly.
McMillan had driven the team of interns from Peoria to Kansas for the week-long opportunity to see politics — past, present and future — in action. They visited the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Park, and the Kansas State Capitol, including a memorable tour of the Capitol’s dome.
Perhaps the most unique part of this experience was the interaction the interns had with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, herself a Bradley University alumna and a member of the university’s Centurion Society. One might imagine that before such a close and consequential election, Kelly would be holding rallies or out barnstorming across the vast state, but no. She was in fact hosting the Bradley interns for pizza and a chat.
“I was just really impressed with the fact that she was willing to open the Governor’s Mansion to us and sit down and have an hour and a half long conversation with us on a Thursday night, the Thursday before the election,” said Hampton.
Although much of the conversation focused on non-political topics in a relaxed, comfortable setting, the interns nevertheless took notice of this unique opportunity to converse with an elected leader.
“It also made you look at politicians like people,” said Brouch, “because a lot of times they seemed just so far away from everything that goes on. [This] really brought it home and together.”
As Election Day loomed, the interns prepared themselves for the most hands-on experience a campaign volunteer could ever have in a political campaign — in-person canvassing. This was eye-opening for Dearman.
“I thought campaigns were more of a digital or televised type thing, or maybe they’d have rallies or whatever you see on TV,” he said. “I didn’t understand just how involved the boots on the ground campaign actually was. I had no idea that canvassing was even a thing.”
McMillan, a former chief of staff to Congressman Ray LaHood, prepared the team with a series of detailed lectures on how political campaigning works. They spent several days canvassing door-to-door in Topeka and Lawrence, the home of the University of Kansas.
Denton recalled a memorable interaction when she came across a consistent Republican voter, who surprisingly declared herself a Democrat Kelly voter. “It was really great to see bipartisanship work at such a small level,” she said. “That’s not something you see nowadays.”
When the interns gathered at the results watch party the evening of Election Day, they reflected on how their perception of political campaigns had changed by having participated in one directly.
“We’re so used to watching campaigns roll out on our couches in our pajamas, and it was so weird to be dressed up in this huge hotel and sitting in chairs with nail biting going on because we’re so nervous about so many different campaigns running at the same time,” said Denton. “It was just a really fun experience.”
Gov. Kelly remained ahead in her contest throughout the evening, but the race was too close to call. “That was honestly more nerve-wracking because you would much rather go from losing to winning than… from winning to losing,” said Hampton.
By midnight, their optimism had started to grow. Gov. Kelly appeared to the raucous cheers of the exhausted volunteers but still did not declare victory. For the Bradley interns, meanwhile, it was time to head home. Along the way, they discovered that the race had been called for their candidate. A small cheer broke out — a reflection of achieved expectation, relief and exhaustion. The students were glad they could share that moment together as a team.
Especially rewarding for the interns was the after-the-fact breakdown of voting data, which showed how Topeka and Lawrence had provided some of the strongest support for Gov. Kelly in the state. Although they were just five people knocking on a limited number of doors during those few days, they couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride in their contribution.
“We went to people that would not have voted,” said Dearman. “All you can do is try… We put in our best effort.”
As they crossed the Illinois-Missouri border for the final leg back to Peoria, the exhausted-yet-elated interns reflected on their experience and mused on how it might affect their future engagement with politics.
’state politics, especially with the increased gridlock in D.C., are becoming more and more important.‘
Hampton has already decided to explore a career as a political staffer, but is now considering the state level rather than the federal level “because state politics, especially with the increased gridlock in D.C., are becoming more and more important.”
Ultimately, all of the students affirmed an intention to become more politically engaged, whether as a more informed voter or as a career.
As they say, a week is a long time in politics.