Kansas Special Election: Did Democrats Really Lose?

Kansas Congress Special Election
Sen. Ted Cruz campaigning with now-Rep. Ron Estes for Estes’ special election campaign. (Fernando Salazar / The Wichita Eagle)

As predicted, Kansas’ 4th district special election to replace now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo resulted in the GOP keeping their House seat. What was not expected, however, was the narrow margin of that victory in the deep-red district. It has pundits across the political spectrum asking two questions: What does it mean for upcoming special elections, and what it could mean for next year’s midterm elections?

Ron Estes, the Republican nominee, won a tightly contested race against Democratic challenger James Thompson by 7 points. Despite running in a district that President Trump won by 27 points, and one in which Pompeo has won in three consecutive elections with over 60% of the vote, Mr. Thompson nearly beat his Republican rival. If not for the intervention of the President and Vice-President, robo-calls, a late visit from Senator Ted Cruz, and ads paid for by the House Republican Campaign Committee, the 4th District might have had its first Democrat representative in over two decades.

So, how should we read the tea leaves? Did the Republicans nearly lose a “safe” red seat due to Estes’ ties to the Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, the second-least popular governor in the country? Did the political earthquake of Trump’s election victory energize liberals in traditionally Republican districts? How damaging, if at all, were the stumbles of the Trump administration to Republican voters?

Well, when it comes to parsing out the truth, the special election reads less like a clinical report and more like a Rorschach test. If it took the combination of Brownback’s unpopularity, Trump’s low approval numbers, and Estes’ own deficiencies as a candidate for Thompson to get as close as he did, Republicans might be optimistic about their chances come next year. It’s hard to imagine how much more unpopular Brownback can get, but if Representative Estes is able to build a rapport with his constituents and President Trump’s number improve, what was a narrow victory this April could become a commanding win in next year’s midterms.

But let’s look at the inkblots a little differently. Mr. Estes received a late-game infusion from House Republicans totaling nearly $100,000. How did the Democratic Party counter their rivals? On the national level, they provided no assistance until the last day of the election. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told the Washington Post: “There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds.” Compare that with Perez’s comments in January of this year, in which he said “Organizing has to be a 12-month endeavor. You can’t show up at a church every 4 October and say, vote for me.” It seems that candidate Perez and Chairman Perez are at odds with each other.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee eventually aided the Thompson campaign by making 25,000 calls urging 4th district residents to go out and vote, but deliberately chose a low-key strategy in order not to energize GOP voters. At the state level, Mr. Thompson criticized the Kansas Democratic Party for their refusal to grant his $20,000 request. Stymied by his own party on a national and state level, Mr. Thompson was still only a few digits away from victory.

The Democratic Party didn’t financially back Mr. Thompson, but that isn’t to say he didn’t receive help. A substantial amount of money raised by the Thompson campaign, nearly $150,000, came from readers of the Daily Kos. In fact, most of the money raised by Mr. Thompson came by small donations. With a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll revealing that 67% of Americans believe the Democratic Party to be out of touch, a grassroots approach is the way forward.

Governor Brownback is unlikely to become a popular figure in Kansas politics, and if the Trump administration continues to disappoint their supporters, Democrats can finish what they started in April. Mr. Thompson has already indicated that he intends to run in 2018, and what he should expect then is more of what he received this past month. Small donations, early and often, can test the resources of the Republican Party. Republicans spent a small fortune to keep the reddest of districts red. What happens in 2018 when they are challenged across the board? The DCCC seems intent on playing it safe, but if the 4th District can be flipped, then the established idea of “safe” districts is upended.

It’s too late to contribute to Thompson’s failed special election bid, but there are candidates worthy of your attention. Jon OssoffRob Quist, and Alexis Frank are all potential upsets.

There are many ways to read the 4th District, but for a party that has had more to mourn than celebrate in recent elections, Democrats and like-minded supporters can draw some comfort from the adage “hope springs eternal.”

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