The GOP held on to its Kansas 4th Congressional District seat after Republican Ron Estes narrowly defeated Democrat James Thompson, signaling a dramatic shift in a race expected to be a landslide Republican victory.
Tuesday’s special election in Kansas—the first congressional election during the Trump presidency— determined who will fill the vacancy left by the newly appointed CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Thompson was not supposed to come this close to winning in a district where Trump and Pompeo both won by about 30 percentage points last November, said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. Estes won with 53 percent of the vote after the Republican Party funded a series of anti-choice attack ads against Thompson.
“Certainly Estes is not helped by [Republican Governor Sam] Brownback,” Loomis said, referring to the Kansas governor who recently vetoed Medicaid expansion that would have given health care to 150,000 people in the state. “When you have a governor hovering at about a 20 percent approval rating, and you supported that governor down the line, that’s really hard to move away from.”
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In the final days of the special election campaign, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) funneled $92,000 into the race on behalf of Estes—$67,000 went to TV advertising in the Wichita market, the largest city in the state and home of GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch. GOP-sponsored robocalls featured urgent get-out-the-vote messages by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) made a last-minute appearance in Wichita to campaign for Estes.
National Democratic support for Thompson was more understated, as the Democratic Party has been heavily focused on the contest for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, where 30-year-old Jon Ossoff is running a competitive race for the seat vacated by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Monday made calls to 25,000 households in the district, and while the state party initially rejected the Thompson campaign’s request of $20,000 for a mailer, they relented and gave $3,000. In a groundswell of grassroots support the week before the election, Thompson’s campaign raised $240,000 from 20,000 individual donations from across the country.
Voters in Kansas’ 4th District haven’t elected a Democrat to Congress in more than 20 years, since then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D) was swept out by a Republican electoral victory wave in 1994 fueled in part by anti-abortion activists. Loomis said the influence of the anti-abortion movement in Kansas can’t be ignored when it comes to electoral outcomes.
“The 4th District is tough for Democrats,” Loomis said. “Anti-abortion folks are the most reliable source of support in that district. That side will come out, work, and show up. I do think that is significant.”
Thompson, who is pro-choice, won his party’s nomination in February after pushback from voters over the possibility of the party selecting an anti-choice Democrat as its nominee.
Attack ads funded by the NRCC tried to tap into the GOP’s fervent anti-abortion base by claiming Thompson supports taxpayer-funded sex selective and later abortion care. Thompson’s campaign requested the television station pull the ad it asserts is “outright false.”
Estes’ narrow seven-point margin of victory in a conservative stronghold could mean good things for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, said Loomis, who suspects the Democratic National Committee will take a look at Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, where the electorate is becoming more progressive and Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder is vulnerable. Thompson coming within striking distance of upsetting a Republican in deep-red Kansas may be just what local Democrats need to get the national party to invest.
“The better [Democrats] do, the more support they are likely to get,” Loomis said. “For better or worse, Kansas remains a metaphor. I think there’s a tendency to pay a little more attention when Kansas is on the radar.”