GOP hangs on to Kansas seat in special election
A closely watched special congressional election in Kansas to fill the seat of President Trump's CIA director, Mike Pompeo, was closer than Republicans would have liked but still ended in a Republican victory.
Kansas GOP treasury secretary Bob Estes defeated Democratic newcomer James Thompson by more than 8,000 votes and nearly 7 percentage points. Estes's percentage of victory exceeded that of Governor Brownback's margin in 2016 but fell far short of the majority racked up by President Trump.
Estes took 53 percent of the vote to Democrat James Thompson's 46 percent in the race for Kansas' southern 4th District. But just five months ago, Trump won the district by 27 percentage points, a sharp turnaround driven by an energized Democratic base looking to strike back against Trump – and Kansas' unpopular Republican governor, Sam Brownback.
"We've sent a message that no Republican district is safe," Thompson said after his loss Tuesday night, adding that he will run for the seat again in 2018.
Poppycock. While turnout for the special election has not been announced, election officials believed that it would be around 25%. There is no message to be sent when only a quarter of the electorate bothers to vote.
Estes' victory came after national Republicans scrambled in the final week of the campaign to deny Thompson a shocking upset victory. After private polling showed Estes ahead by only a slim margin for such a reliably Republican district, the NRCC launched a late TV ad bashing Thompson and backing Estes, followed by a flurry of big-name rescue efforts: House Speaker Paul Ryan sent out a fundraising pitch for Estes, Sen. Ted Cruz stumped in Wichita, and Vice President Mike Pence and Trump recorded robocalls sent to district Republicans urging them to vote on Tuesday.
A loss – in one of the 100 most Republican-leaning districts in the country, according to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index scores, which measure presidential-election performance against the national average – would have been devastating for the GOP and particularly for Trump, who already in his young presidency has had trouble wrangling lawmakers to vote for administration priorities like the repeal of Obamacare.
Even with Estes' victory, winning majority support for tough votes in Congress could become even more difficult if more Republicans see a chance of danger in the 2018 elections, though Republicans have noted that special elections are unpredictable by nature.
Trump himself triggered the special election by naming then-Rep. Mike Pompeo as his CIA director.
"I would not say this is any kind of referendum on Donald Trump," Kansas Republican Party chairman Kelly Arnold said pre-election.
Yet even before the results were in, Democrats claimed victory in defeat, noting how much Estes was underperforming typical Republicans in the district, how energized Democratic voters are, and that several upcoming special elections, not to mention the 2018 midterms, will happen on more friendly turf.
Both Republicans and Democrats are spinning furiously, but they're both full of it. Yes, it was certainly a referendum on Donald Trump. Both parties treated it as such, and that's how the voters perceived it.
But there were 150,000 more votes cast in the district in 2016 than in this special election. Apparently, many of those who bothered to vote were Democrats mad at Donald Trump. Anger is an excellent goad to get someone to vote, so it's hardly surprising that more Democrats than usual came out to cast a ballot against the sitting president.
But the election also revealed a troubling complacency on the part of the GOP. Estes, by most reports, was a lackluster candidate who ran an uninspiring race. If the GOP is going to hold on to a comfortable majority in the House in 2018, they're going to have to do better. They will be facing an energized – even an enraged – Democratic Party and will be able to take nothing for granted.