There are stark difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates competing in the April 11 special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo.
Ron Estes is a long-time Republican politician, a supporter of Gov. Sam Brownback and President Trump. In his nomination acceptance speech, Estes remembered to acknowledge every major faction in the Kansas Republican establishment: pro-life voters, small-government activists, promoters of strong national defense, and more.
By contrast, James Thompson is a political newcomer, someone whose engagement with Democratic politics is more in line with the challenge to the Democratic establishment posed by Bernie Sanders (who handily defeated Hillary Clinton in the Kansas Democratic caucus last spring). Thompson is a military veteran who is culturally comfortable around guns. He is also strongly committed to civil, women’s and gay rights, and he takes progressive positions on taxation and poverty and trade.
So in terms of political ideology, Estes and Thompson are very distinct.
But political ideology isn’t the best way to conceive of this contest. Think political geography instead.
Estes’ primary commitment is to political movements that are well-rooted both nationally and in Kansas. There were Republicans competing for the nomination who represented a conservatism that might have dissented from elements of Brownback’s record or Trump’s agenda, but they never really threatened Estes’ level of support. Ultimately, Estes is a loyal Kansas Republican, and the Republican establishment’s endorsement of him was no surprise.
Thompson, on the other hand, reflects a changing Democratic Party, and not just in terms of Sanders’ challenge to Clinton. It is also reflected in the millions of protesters nationwide (including many here in Wichita) who marched to express opposition to the possible misogynistic and xenophobic implications of Trump’s election.
All the talk of “islands of blue” in the midst of conservative red states is reflected in Thompson’s candidacy, whose support drew in part upon his extensive work defending civil rights throughout Wichita.
Thompson won the nomination after a close vote against Dennis McKinney, who is the very model of the sort of Democrat once regularly successful in Kansas politics – culturally conservative, economically populist, with farming roots. This underscores the change.
In nominating Thompson, the Kansas Democratic Party is watching to see if a different kind of campaign – one that balances urban issues with rural ones, and one more forthrightly connected to the interests of Kansas’ more diverse, more secular, more independent urban and suburban populations – has a chance of success.
The national Democratic Party will be watching, too. Ever since the rise of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, ever since Sanders’ challenge to the Clinton machine, there have been questions about whether a strongly progressive party might have a real electoral chance.
It would be fascinating if Wichita, unexpectedly, becomes one of the first real tests of that idea.
Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University.