In the end, the race to fill now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s seat in Congress wasn’t as close as some thought, but closer than it normally would have been. Republican Mike Estes beat Democrat James Thompson by nearly seven points in the special election in Kansas’ 4th Congressional district, which has a Cook index of R+15 and which Donald Trump won by 27 points last November. Democrats have declared the closer finish a moral victory, James Antle reports for the Washington Examiner:
Democratic activists are claiming a moral victory in Kansas despite narrowly losing a special congressional election there Tuesday night. …
No Democrat has won this seat since 1992, the year Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush.
Estes, however, is set to prevail by less than 7 points, a warning sign for the House Republican majority less than 100 days into the Trump administration.
Democrats have some reason to cheer, writes Amber Philips at the Washington Post, although she sounds a skeptical note:
Democrats are absolutely thrilled about what that says about their party in the era of Trump — with good reason. …
“If we can make Republicans go into full-on freakout mode in a ruby red Kansas congressional district now,” said Jim Dean, director of the progressive group Chair of Democracy for America in a statement, “we have the power to rip the gavel out of Paul Ryan’s hands in November 2018.”
Maybe. What happens in April 2017 does not mean the same thing will happen in November 2018, when the entire House of Representatives is up for reelection. But it’s the best evidence we’ve got that right now, voters in traditionally Republican districts aren’t thrilled with Trump.
That seems an odd conclusion to reach, considering what happened in this race. It’s true that late polling had Estes underperforming, having dropped into a virtual tie with Thompson with just a +1 edge. In a district with a natural double-digit advantage for Republicans, that’s certainly cause for concern — but what specifically turned off voters? Was it Donald Trump, who just came into office, or was it Estes’ boss, Governor Sam Brownback, who has become deeply unpopular in the state over his second term in office?
The answer to that question might be ascertained by what happened in between the red flags from the polls and Election Day. National resources from both parties flooded into the race, but most importantly, Donald Trump himself began to campaign on Estes’ behalf. He recorded robocalls for GOTV efforts and made it known that Estes was his guy:
Yet holding the 4th Congressional District — which Trump captured by 27 points in November, and is the home to Koch Industries — took more work, and money, than Republicans had expected. Thompson easily won voters who cast their ballots early and was poised to carry Wichita’s Sedgwick County, which Trump won by 18 points.
In the campaign’s final weekend, the NRCC spent close to $100,000 on the race, and the GOP-allied Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC paid for tens of thousands of get-out-the-vote phone calls. President Trump even recorded a call for the Republican and sent an Election Day tweet calling Estes a “wonderful guy” who would help him on “Healthcare & Tax Cuts (Reform).”
In other words, the increased national involvement in the race, plus a late personal endorsement from Trump, took this race from a dead heat to a comfortable-if-not-spectacular win for the GOP. That doesn’t look like a problem for Trump and the Republican Party in general; it looks like a big problem for the Kansas GOP. That doesn’t necessarily translate anywhere else.
Don’t forget too that this was a special election, where short cycles and low turnouts produce unusual results. Around 121,000 votes got cast yesterday, as opposed to the 275,000+ that turned out in November to give Trump his big win in KS-04. Special elections favor organized activists more than regular elections do because of the significantly lower turnout they produce, and progressive activists had targeted this seat for quite a while. Democrats nearly caught Republicans napping and came close to plucking one seat away from the GOP’s majority, but … they didn’t, and in the end didn’t really come close — even with the head start and organizational advantage.
But then again, that’s the great advantage of moral victories. They don’t actually have to adhere to metrics or even reality, but merely to the shifting goalposts of those who claim them. Just ask Paul Nehlen.