Democrats see the potential for future victories after coming closer than they have in years to turning a solidly red congressional district blue.
Democrat James Thompson – a civil rights attorney mounting his first run for office – lost by 6.8 percentage points on Tuesday to Ron Estes, a Republican who has been state treasurer for several years.
Thompson garnered 45.7 percent of the vote to Estes’ 52.5 percent. It was the best showing for Democrats in the 4th Congressional District in at least eight elections. No Democrat had received more than 40 percent of the vote in at least 14 years.
Mike Pompeo, the Republican who resigned the seat to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, won re-election to the seat in November by 31 percentage points. President Trump won the district by 27 points.
Trying to immediately capitalize on his performance, Thompson announced his candidacy for the seat in 2018.
“We set out about 60, 75 days ago with people who told us we didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. And we’ve shown that this district is not just competitive but that we can win it,” Thompson said.
Nationwide, the results may hearten Democrats who are wondering whether Trump’s presidency will produce a backlash that propels more Democrats into office.
“Democrats are fired up and they’re mobilizing,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. They see the potential to win the 2nd District seat held by Rep. Lynn Jenkins or the 3rd District seat held by Rep. Kevin Yoder in 2018.
But he warned against over-interpreting the results of a special election with a low turnout. “The usual generous grain of salt is good to take with this election,” Rackaway said.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a former presidential candidate, congratulated Thompson on Wednesday for what he called “an incredibly impressive showing” and said Thompson’s finish bodes well for progressives in areas where they’re not starting as far behind in party registration as in south-central Kansas.
In the 4th District, Republicans outnumber Democrats about 187,000 to 96,000, with 140,000 unaffiliated voters.
In Kansas, the outcome suggests Gov. Sam Brownback remains a political liability. The second-term governor is deeply unpopular across the political spectrum, and the Thompson campaign tried hard to bind Estes to Brownback.
“Kansans already have turned the page on Brownback and rejected him the last two elections, and they were seeing too much of Brownback out of Trump, and they wanted to send a message,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, a former Republican state senator, acknowledged the negative perception of Brownback and said the race was close because of it.
“They’re not displeased with President Trump,” he said of Republicans voting for Thompson. “They have a belief … Estes is in cahoots with Brownback.”
O’Donnell said the close race should not indicate Republicans are in trouble in states like Georgia, Montana and South Carolina, where they will try to replace other administration appointees.
“Those states don’t have a highly unpopular governor that is going to have the proverbial millstone around the candidate’s neck,” he said.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach said the race wasn’t a referendum on Trump. He also brushed aside criticism that Estes is like Brownback.
“The Kansas Democrats have shown us their playbook, and that is that every Republican is Sam Brownback,” Kobach said.
For Republicans, Estes’ smaller victory margin amounts to a warning shot that GOP candidates can’t expect a win just because they’re Republicans in typically conservative districts.
Estes ran a low-key campaign, choosing not to participate in some voter forums. Then, late in the race, national Republicans came to his aid. Voters heard from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence via robocalls. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz flew to Wichita for a rally on Monday.
Estes said the late surge of activity had to do with turning out voters.
“Part of that is you have to do some of it right at the tail end because people are busy, whether it’s March Madness, things at school or other things. So I think people really got focused on it,” Estes said.
“We could actually tell a little bit after April got here that people were noticing ‘Yeah, the election’s on the 11th, and we’ve got to plan for it.’ ”
Former state Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican, said Estes’ decision to skip events early in the campaign probably hurt him more than Democrats’ efforts to tie him to Brownback.
“I think there’s quite of few of us who would like to have seen Ron get out there a little earlier than he did. … He had some debates that he missed, and I don’t think that helped his image,” Hutton said.
Contributing: Daniel Salazar and Dion Lefler of The Eagle, and Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star