Tensions between Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson’s campaign and the Kansas Democratic Party spilled into the open over the weekend after party leaders rejected a request from the campaign for $20,000 and the campaign accused some in the party of “sitting on the sidelines.”
The public infighting comes as the April 11 special election to fill the House seat vacated by Rep. Mike Pompeo approaches. Thompson is squaring off against Republican Ron Estes, the state treasurer, and Libertarian Chris Rockhold.
Thompson campaign manager Colin Curtis on Saturday posted on Twitter that if Kansas Democratic Party executive committee members "spent ½ the time organizing/ raising $ that they do arguing on Facebook, they might have a statewide office." Curtis said the Facebook argument he referred to took place Saturday.
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"Kansas Democrats have an opportunity here to win for the first time in 23 years now and it feels like from the campaign’s perspective that a lot of the current establishment of the KDP is sitting on the sidelines," Curtis told The Eagle on Sunday.
Tom Witt, chair of the party’s progressive caucus and a member of the executive committee, said people associated with Thompson’s campaign were also involved in the Facebook argument, which centered on a Friday meeting of the committee.
The committee convened an emergency meeting via a conference call to consider Thompson’s request for $20,000, which was made several days earlier. The campaign wanted the funds to pay for mailers. The committee turned down the request. Witt said the party didn’t have the money.
"The discussion really was focused on does the party have the money being requested and when it was made clear that money didn’t exist, the conversation turned to whether there is other money that could be used to fulfill the request and as it turns out the money just isn’t there," Witt said.
The party is rebuilding its bank accounts after the 2016 election, in preparation for the 2018 election, Witt said.
"In the 2016 election cycle we were all on the same team, all pulling in the same direction…I’m not sure the Thompson campaign has taken into account the lack of resources going into this new year," Witt said.
Dispute over funding
The Thompson campaign believed the funding request would be a small investment to turn out Democrats needed to win the race, Curtis said.
"I don’t think it’s atypical for campaigns to ask parties to chip in. We asked the party to pay for a $20,000 mail project that would essentially be an early voter outreach," Curtis said.
Curtis referenced the party’s latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, which showed the party had $274,111 cash on hand at the end of February.
That figure appears to be in error, however.
A Feb. 20 letter from the FEC to the party says the filing lists a $143,000 transfer from "Hillary Victory Fund." But the FEC letter says a review shows only $14,300 was disbursed.
That would mean the party’s actual cash on hand was closer to $145,000.
But Witt said the actual amount available to use in a federal race is much lower, around $60,000. And that money also is used to pay the operational expenses of the party, such as payroll and office overhead, he said.
In a follow-up interview, Curtis said he would defer to the party on its finances and he understands everybody has bills to pay. But he emphasized that the 4th Congressional race is the only race the party has to pay attention to right now.
John Gibson, the party chairman, would not comment on the party’s finances or discuss the details of Friday’s conference call.
"As the chair of the party, I obviously want to support all of our candidates to the best of our abilities," Gibson said.
Poll shows Thompson trailing
Thompson has been waging an uphill battle against Estes.
Public discord between a candidate and the party certainly doesn’t help, said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University. Candidates typically try to hide tensions at least until after the election, he said.
"It doesn’t look good for a candidate to be fighting with the party," Smith said.
The Washington-based research firm Lincoln Park Strategies conducted a poll for Thompson in late February that found Estes leading Thompson among poll respondents, 56 percent to 32 percent. Four percent supported Rockhold.
The poll involved 500 interviews of likely voters by landline and cell phone. The margin of error was 4.4 percent.
Asked about the poll, Curtis said it was conducted a month ago and that the race has changed dramatically since then.
A memo dated March 7 from Lincoln Park Strategies with the polling results acknowledged the district is tough for Democrats, but said high engagement from Democrats, dissatisfaction with Kansas and Gov. Sam Brownback and expected low voter turnout could "create the perfect storm for Democrats to pull off an upset."
The memo concluded by saying that if Thompson is able to raise the needed funds, he has a viable path to victory.
On Sunday, the Thompson campaign announced it had raised more than $250,000, with more than 4,000 individual contributors.
"We’re doing that. We’re doing our part to do that," Curtis said. "We’re raising the money we need to."
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star