WICHITA — The nation's first congressional election since President Donald Trump's victory is taking place next week for a seat Republicans have held for two decades in a south-central Kansas district Trump carried with 60 percent of the vote.
But while the race in the heavily Republican district makes the state's GOP Treasurer Ron Estes the expected front-runner, his Democratic rival James Thompson, a civil rights attorney, is hoping Estes' ties to the state's unpopular governor will sway enough voters to pull off an upset. Also in the mix is a long-shot bid by Libertarian Chris Rockhold, a flight simulator instructor.
A last-minute ad buy this week of nearly $100,000 by the National Republican Congressional Committee may signal the GOP's anxiety over a House seat from the heavily Republican district.
Tuesday's election in Kansas will determine who fills the vacancy created when Trump chose former U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo as his CIA director.
The 17-county congressional district — an area that encompasses vast fields of winter wheat punctuated by small Kansas towns — has been hard hit by the downturn in the agricultural economy. It also is home to the state's largest city of Wichita, where battered aircraft manufacturing plants have shed hundreds of well-paying, blue-collar jobs.
Republicans have represented the district since Todd Tiahrt unseated veteran Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman in 1994. Pompeo won the state's 4th District seat in 2010, when Tiahrt gave it up to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.
The 60-year-old Republican state treasurer has been following his local party's "safe-mode" for races not considered close: skipping most debates, relying on his own advertising and cruising to victory by appealing to party affiliation, said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University.
"Estes is pretty solidly linked with Donald Trump — that is a big consideration," he said. "It is probably too soon to look for Trump voters to turn against him in this kind of race."
Also bolstering Estes' chances is that the Wichita area has been strongly conservative on the abortion issue, Beatty said, and most people are fairly happy with Trump's pick to the U.S. Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.
Estes acknowledged people across the country are looking at the Kansas election as an indication of the new president's support and approval rating, and he predicted people will vote for him because of his support for Trump's policies.
Estes advocates the repeal and replacement of President Barack Obama's health care act, even after the GOP's recent failed efforts to do so. Estes, like Trump, has made reducing the regulatory burden on business a big part of his campaign. He also backs building a border wall and supports Trump's executive order seeking to suspend new visas for people in six Muslim-majority countries. He opposes funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood.
"Our president has done a great job since he has been in office," Estes said.
Republican and Democratic party leaders are anticipating a low-turnout special election.
Kerry Gooch, state Democratic Party's executive director, has said the special election gives people angry with the Trump administration a chance to fight back. It's also the best shot in years for Democrats to flip a seat in deep red Kansas.
The 46-year-old political newcomer Thompson is supported by Our Revolution, the group founded in the wake of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Sanders soundly defeated Hillary Clinton in the Kansas presidential caucus last year, winning with 68 percent of the vote.
Thompson advocates fixing, not repealing, the nation's health care law and opposes Trump's proposed border wall and his travel ban. Thompson is an Army veteran and has made support of returning war veterans a focus of his campaign advertising.
The Democrat contends the upcoming congressional election will not be so much a referendum on Trump as it will be on Gov. Sam Brownback, who turned Kansas into a lab for conservative tax cuts that has left the state scrambling to pay its bills while failing to stimulate its economy.
"It is not just our district or state that needs to be concerned about this election. This election is literally about a man who wants to take the failed policies of the Brownback administration and nationalize them," Thompson said. "We have shown why trickle-down economics don't work, we have shown his policies have failed. They have been disastrous for our state."
The same November election that handed Trump the state's electoral votes also ousted two dozen of Brownback's allies in the state Legislature, including flipping 13 seats to Democrats.
Beatty said Brownback's unpopularity could be "a huge, huge factor" in tightening the congressional race.