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Many wrote off special 4th District race, but they shouldn't have

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In the wake of a surprisingly close special election on Tuesday, state and national Democrats have to be asking themselves one question: Who lost the 4th District?

The more important question, though, ought to be what, if anything, does the race between Republican State Treasurer Ron Estes and first-time Democratic candidate James Thompson portend about the next round of congressional races in 2018?

Estes won the race, 53-46 percent, over Thompson, but heading into the special election, people in both parties assumed the margin would be much wider than that. Only six months earlier, former Rep. Mike Pompeo, whose appointment as CIA director triggered the special election, carried the district by a 31-point margin over Democrat Dan Giroux. Trump himself carried the district by a 27-point margin.

Contrary to what President Donald Trump tweeted out Wednesday morning, neither the state nor the national Democratic Party put a whole lot of money into the race between Estes and Thompson, at least until the final days of the race.

None by Donald J. Trump

Only in the final days, when polling numbers and advance voting trends showed the race might be winnable, did the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee start making phone calls into the district, while the liberal activist website the Daily Kos started rounding up phone bank volunteers and raising money online for Thompson.

Tyler Law of the DCCC said that group reached about 25,000 voters by phone on Monday and Tuesday. And Chris Reeves, a Kansas Democratic Party activist who occasionally blogs for the Daily Kos, said that organization raised a little more than $160,000 during the final push.

Republicans also appear to have been caught off guard by the closeness of the race, but they reacted more quickly. Starting Tuesday, April 4, according to reports on file with the Federal Election Commission, they poured in $160,000 worth of advertising into the Wichita media market, with more than half of that spent on negative advertising against Thompson.

By congressional race standards, that’s a fairly paltry sum and a reflection of the fact that Kansas is a pretty low-cost, low-risk state when it comes to campaign spending.

That advertising was followed by a series of robocalls to GOP voters over the weekend from both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and a personal fly-in appearance by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Kansas GOP presidential caucuses last year by a wide margin over Trump.

There were signs of intra-party strife early on when Thompson complained that the Kansas Democratic Party turned down his request for a $25,000 postcard mailing. Officials with the state party, however, said they simply didn’t have it, although they said they did provide plenty of staff and other logistical support.

Democrat James Thompson speaks to supporters at the Murdock Theatre in Wichita, Kan., Tuesday, April, 11, 2017. Thompson came up short in his bid to beat Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes in a special election to replace current CIA director and former U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo in the Kansas 4th congressional district. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

Democrat James Thompson speaks to supporters at the Murdock Theatre in Wichita, Kan., Tuesday, April, 11, 2017. Thompson came up short in his bid to beat Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes in a special election to replace current CIA director and former U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo in the Kansas 4th congressional district. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee Chairman Thomas Perez told the Washington Post that the national party had no plans to invest money in the race. “We can make progress in Kansas,” Perez was quoted as saying. “There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds.”

The lack of attention paid by the Democratic National Committee to states like Kansas has been a sore spot for many years. But frustration with what some Democrats see as a “bi-coastal” mentality of the national party reached a crescendo after the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton lost the electoral vote despite winning the popular vote by more than 3 million ballots.

Clinton won only five states outside the West Coast, the Mid-Atlantic Coast and New England.

Furthermore, of the 48 seats in the U.S. Senate that Democrats currently control, including the two independents who caucus with Democrats, only 10 of them are from states that Trump won in 2016. And of those 10, nine are up for re-election in 2018.

Back home in Kansas, it’s easy to make the argument that investing in a Democratic campaign is an act of futility. Republicans have run the table in every statewide and federal race here since 2010. For those who are counting, that's a streak of 32-0. But the results of Tuesday’s special election in the 4th District may indicate that it might be worth the DNC’s time to spend just a little bit of money here.

Thompson has already indicated he plans to make another run for that seat in 2018. In addition, though, at least two other congressional districts in Kansas are now seen as potentially in play.

In the 2nd District of eastern Kansas, including Lawrence, Rep. Lynn Jenkins has already announced her plans to retire, making that an open race next year. And Democrats see signs of hope in the Kansas City-centered 3rd District, which Clinton carried by a narrow margin in 2016 while incumbent GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder won with barely 51 percent of the vote.

Granted, the political landscape will look much different in 2018 than it did this week, when the campaign schedule was compressed into just a few weeks and preliminary estimates put voter turnout at just 27 percent. There will also be an open race for governor at the top of the ballot, which could drain a lot of local resources away from congressional races.

Still, in light of Tuesday's results, there is every reason to think that congressional races in Kansas will be more competitive in 2018 than they have been for the last four cycles.

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