Update 10:04 p.m.: Sedgwick County finishes its vote counting and becomes the only county carried by Democrat James Thompson. Thompson led by 414 over Republican Ron Estes, who carried the other 16 counties enroute to victory. Overall, Estes had 53 percent to 45 percent for Thompson.
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Update 9:43 p.m.: The Associated Press says Estes has won the special House election to replace Mike Pompeo. He has 52 percent of the vote to Thompson’s 47 percent with 519 of 620 precincts counted.
Update: 9:35 p.m.: Sedgwick County election officials had counted about half the county’s votes by 9:30 as some problems cropped up with the county’s new voting machines.
Election Commissioner Tabitha 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, were painstakingly feeding 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.
Update 9:31 p.m.: Republican Ron Estes leads with 52 percent of the vote to Democrat James Thompson’s 47 percent, with 443 of 620 precincts counted. Still to report are 130 precincts in Sedgwick County.
Update 9:15 p.m.: Republican Ron Estes continues to build a lead, with 51 percent of the vote to Democrat James Thompson’s 47 percent, with 426 of 620 precincts counted. Still to report are 101 precincts in Sedgwick County.
Update 9 p.m.: Sedgwick County commissioner and former state senator Michael O’Donnell said the race was close because of Gov. Sam Brownback’s lack of popularity.
“They’re not displeased with President Trump,” he said of Republicans voting for Democrat James Thompson. “They have a belief… (Republican Ron) 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 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,” O’Donnell said.
Update 8:51 p.m.: Republican Ron Estes has won nine of the 17 counties in the 4th District. He leads in four others, including Butler. Democrat James Thompson still leads in Sedgwick and Harvey. Overall, Estes has 50 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Thompson with 334 of 620 precincts reporting.
Update 8:46 p.m.: Estes takes the lead in the race with half of the precincts reporting. He has 50 percent of the vote to Thompson’s 49 percent.
Update 8:24 p.m.: With 107 of 620 precincts reporting, Thompson leads Estes 53 percent to 45 percent. Thompson leads in only two counties: Sedgwick and Harvey. Estes has won four rural counties: Comanche, Edwards, Kiowa and Pawnee.
Update 8:20 p.m.: Estes said he felt good as the votes were being counted and that the campaign had received good responses at the door and over the phone.
Estes wasn’t shy about associating with President Donald Trump, who recorded a robo-call for Estes earlier and tweeted his support on Tuesday.
The district went for Trump, and Estes said people were still enthusiastic about the new president.
“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.
People want to change Washington, Estes said.
“In a lot of ways you see this as a continuation of that, that message from November. There’s also the other side, the Democrats, that are saying this is a protest vote.”
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 vs state level. So I think they were trying to confuse the voters to some degree, and I’d rather just talk about the federal issues,” Estes said.
Update 8:14 p.m.: Democrats gathered at the Murdock Theater for Democrat James Thompson’s watch party said they were proud of the race he ran, win or lose.
“We’re off to a good start, it looks good right now,” said Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. “I’ve been impressed by the number of Republicans who tell me they voted for him (Thompson). I keep running into them.”
Marge Zakoura-Vaughan, a longtime community activist, said Thompson ran “a great race.”
“He’s been focused on important issues and has attracted so many people to work for him,” she said.
Update 8:09 p.m.: With nine counties reporting early results, Thompson leads with 54 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Republican Ron Estes. Thompson held a lead in just two counties – Sedgwick and Harvey.
Update 7:59 p.m.: Estes has won the first county to report all its election results: Pawnee County. He had 44 votes to Thompson’s 18 percent. Across the district, with Sedgwick and four other counties reporting results of early balloting, Thompson leads Estes 60 percent to 39 percent.
Update 7:19 p.m.: Initial results from advance balloting in Sedgwick County have Thompson with 62 percent of the vote to Estes’ 37 percent.
Polls have closed and Kansas Republicans are waiting to see whether a district they’ve won easily for two decades could flip to Democrat in the first congressional vote since Donald Trump became president.
GOP strategists said in recent days that Democrat James Thompson, a civil rights attorney, was in striking distance of Kansas Treasurer Ron Estes, a Wichita Republican, in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo. The race also features Libertarian Chris Rockhold.
The special election fills the House seat vacated when Pompeo resigned from Congress to accept President Trump’s appointment as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I’m absolutely unsure how it’s going to go,” said Jeff Glendening, the state director of Americans For Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that has ties to Wichita-based Koch Industries. “I think it’s way too close to call. It could be one of those late nights.”
With a near 2-1 advantage in party registration, the race was originally seen as an easy win for the Republican, Estes. Pompeo won by 31 percentage points in November. The last time a Democrat won the 4th District was in 1992.
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 very low-turnout election.
The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which tracks elections, changed the races rating from a safe Republican seat to a likely Republican seat on the eve of the election, citing signs of alarm from Republicans, including robocalls to GOP voters from the president and vice president in the election’s final days.
“Ron Estes is running TODAY for Congress in the Great State of Kansas,” Trump tweeted early Tuesday morning as voters went to the polls. “A wonderful guy, I need his help on Healthcare & Tax Cuts (Reform).”
Estes’ campaign manager, Rodger Woods, struck a confident tone in an e-mail an hour before polls closed.
“We are very optimistic that our voters saw the choices before them and will select the pro-life, constitutional conservative who holds the values of the 4th district to be their next representative in congress,” he said.
The Republican National Congressional Committee spent $92,000 for a last-minute attack ad blitz on Thompson centered on the abortion issue, an attack he and his supporters called false.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence voiced robocalls for Estes, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rallied Monday for him in a hangar stop near Wichita Eisenhower National Airport.
“Those are the things we were doing to bring attention to the race,” said Kelly Arnold, Kansas Republican Party chairman. “We had to motivate people.”
Arnold added he felt comfortable with early vote margins because the party saw higher turnout throughout the day.
“That should bode well for us,” he said, referring to the party’s advantage in registration over Democrats in the 4th District.
Thompson’s campaign manager, Colin Curtis, said that Republicans’ overconfidence enabled Democrats to make the race more competitive than most analysts initially expected.
“I think the key was that Republicans took this for granted,” Curtis said. “They saw this seat as one that was safe for them. They just had to put their name on the ballot and Ron Estes was going to be a congressman in a few months.”
Marching under the banner of the “Thompson Army,” the candidate and his supporters – 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 go to college and law school, becoming a civil-rights attorney.
At every turn he sought to link Estes to Gov. Sam Brownback. Brownback’s popularity has plummeted amid state budget problems and an ongoing school finance issue.
Jaci Bell, a Wichita teacher, said she didn’t want to see Estes promote the “Brownback economic plan” on the national level. She voted for Thompson.
“I felt he cared more. He showed up to the debates,” she said.
Other Thompson voters cited turmoil in state government.
“He’s not for the Republican weirdness we’ve got going on in this state,” said Betty Turgeon outside the Machinists Union hall near Meridian and I-235.
Carolyn Harris, who cast her vote for Estes, said she’s a Trump supporter and wants to see more Republicans in Congress.
“Trump needs all the support he can get,” Harris said outside the Machinists hall.
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.”
“I like the way he thinks on spending,” Anderson added. “I think we need to rein it in.”
Check back at kansas.com for continuing updates on the special election as results roll in from across the 4th District.