With help from President Trump and other high-profile Republicans, State Treasurer Ron Estes held off a surprisingly strong challenge by Democratic political newcomer James Thompson on Tuesday to win a seat in Congress.
National Republicans had pulled out all the stops in the campaign’s final days to boost Estes and keep the seat formerly held by Mike Pompeo, now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
They dispatched Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to Wichita to rally the troops on Monday and had the president and Vice President Mike Pence record robocalls on Estes’ behalf. The National Republican Congressional Committee funded a last-minute ad blitz slamming Thompson on abortion.
After trailing in early returns, Estes pulled ahead on the strength of rural counties in the 4th Congressional District. Thompson won the more urban Sedgwick County by a small margin. Estes won overall with 52.5 percent of the vote to Thompson’s 45.7 percent. Libertarian Chris Rockhold drew 1.7 percent.
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“We heard a lot from the national media and from people outside the state that we weren’t going to be able to win this race. We showed tonight that we were,” Estes said. “We’re still a Republican seat. ... We sent a message across the country that we’re still Republican. That message should echo.
“For far too long, Washington hasn’t worked for us. We need to make sure that changes,” Estes said. “Tonight is a symbol of that.”
He dismissed “angst against the president” and that the election “was a chance for the Democrats.”
“We really showed the pundits tonight, didn’t we?” he asked, to applause and cheers.
After his loss became apparent, Thompson addressed a watch party that nevertheless felt jubilant.
“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but Mr. Estes did not beat us. It took a president of the United States, the vice president, the speaker of the House, a senator coming into our state and a bunch of lies to try to drum up a vote.”
Thompson said he will run for the seat again in 2018, sparking cries of approval from the crowd.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, a former state senator, said the race was close because of Gov. Sam Brownback’s unpopularity.
“They’re not displeased with President Trump,” he said of Republicans voting for Thompson. “They have a belief … Estes is in cahoots with Brownback.”
Estes said his priority as a congressman will be to help Trump change things in Washington.
“He’s really hit the ground running with a lot of his executive orders in terms of doing the things he said he was going to do in his campaign. So people are supportive of that,” Estes said.
He rejected the idea that anti-Brownback sentiment factored into the race.
“That’s a little bit off base, because the issues are different at the federal level versus the state level,” he said. “So I think they (the Democrats) were trying to confuse the voters to some degree.”
Thompson seldom missed an opportunity to tie Estes to Brownback as the state government struggles to balance its budget and meet a Supreme Court mandate to put more money into underfunded schools.
With a near 2-1 advantage in party registration, the race was originally seen as an easy win for Estes.
Pompeo won by 31 percentage points in November. The last time a Democrat won the 4th District was in 1992.
Marching under the banner of the “Thompson Army,” the candidate and his backers – many of them supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential bid last year – mounted an aggressive campaign of personal appearances and social media.
Thompson highlighted his background: Poor and at times homeless, he joined the Army and went on to college and law school, becoming a civil rights attorney.
Estes turned down multiple debate opportunities and focused heavily on trying to motivate the most conservative Republican voters to go to the polls for what was expected to be a low-turnout election.
Final turnout figures were not available, but Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said it could be nearly double the 20 percent she had expected.
Carolyn Harris, who cast her vote for Estes at the Machinists Union hall in south Wichita, said she’s a Trump supporter and wants to see more Republicans in Congress.
“Trump needs all the support he can get,” Harris said.
Beth Anderson also said she voted for Estes but that she wasn’t focused on the social issues of the campaign.
“I’m not for Obamacare,” she said, referring to the Affordable Care Act. “I’ve had to change my doctor. I’ve had to change everything.”
Sedgwick County election officials took about three hours to count the ballots as some problems cropped up with the county’s new voting machines.
Lehman said she “kind of expected” that counting would be somewhat slower as workers adapt to the new technology, which uses a touch-screen machine to produce a ballot card that is then fed into a separate counting machine.
At two locations, Reformation Lutheran Church and the Edgemoor Recreation Center, poll workers removed the memory cards from counting machines before the machines had finished processing the votes, Lehman said.
Those two boxes of ballots had to be recounted, and a bipartisan board of two, Republican Laura Bianco and Democrat Sally Huber, painstakingly fed ballot cards one by one through another counting machine to get the tally.
Lehman said county officials had noticed the design flaw in the machine on a trip to Maryland and that by the time the county has its next election, the software will be revised by the vendor to give poll workers a video message when it’s safe to take out the memory stick.
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star