Today, a special election will take place to decide who will replace Mike Pompeo in Kansas’ 4th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Planning for the election began in January when Pompeo resigned from Congress to become the CIA director. For the past few months, three candidates – a Republican, a Democrat and a Libertarian – have been campaigning.
KMUW’s Deborah Shaar spoke with Neal Allen, a professor of political science at Wichita State University, to get his perspective on the race.
Deborah Shaar: This is the first special election in Kansas since the 1950s, so right from the start the Legislature needed to get involved to change some election laws. How do you think this election cycle has gone?
Neal Allen: There are several special elections that have been created because of Trump appointees who are House members and the Kansas one just happens to be first. And one way to see these elections is it gives us some kind of idea as to the popularity of the Trump administration and to the kind of excitement that's being generated on both sides by this very interesting time in American politics.
The three candidates in this race for the Fourth District – Republican Ron Estes, Democrat James Thompson and Libertarian Chris Rockhold – had a short amount of time to really campaign and to get voter support. How do you think they did?
Thompson has clearly run the most active campaign for a Democrat in several years – certainly since 2010, and Rockhold has also ran a more active campaign than most Libertarians do. Estes has run a kind of standard Republican campaign, but he's running in a district that should favor Republicans very strongly, and that he won by a large margin when he got elected to the state treasurer back in 2014. So Estes seems to be running a kind of a “trying not to make mistakes” campaign, which is what makes sense for him considering this district.
So last week the National Republican Congressional Committee spent about $100,000 in a last-minute campaign push for Estes here in the 4th District. What did you think about that, and was it expected?
It's very unexpected considering the partisanship of this district. The Democrats haven't been above 40 percent in the 4th District since 2000—and it strongly went for Donald Trump on the national level in 2016. Also, the demographics of this district are ones that ought to favor the Republicans, and particularly, Trump Republicans because there's not a whole lot of the highly educated, high-income voters that have been swinging to the Democrats in the last few cycles. So it's a big deal that the national Republicans are so concerned that they're willing to spend a good amount of money on Wichita television to back Estes.
I know the Thompson campaign has said that the National Democratic Party hasn't been that involved in his campaign. Is that what you're seeing as well?
Yes, that seems to be true. And the biggest reason for that probably is that the National Democratic Party, in particular the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – which is their House campaign arm -- is focusing very much on the Georgia 6th District race, which is clearly a more winnable race than this one, and where the Democrat there is leading in polling going into the first round of voting. If Thompson would win this 4th District or even get close, that would be a sign that there's really something strong going on in the electorate in general.
Do you think his showing in this election will have an effect on state politics, maybe specifically the governor's race in 2018?
Possibly, although the governor's race in Kansas is already set to be extremely competitive because the Republican Party, which still is the dominant party in Kansas, is so unpopular at the state level particularly because of Governor Brownback. The really strong signal that will be sent tonight if Thompson wins, or gets close, is that Democrats are on the rise nationwide, and will be a strong signal to potential candidates to run for the House and Senate next year. That, for Democrats, 2018 is going to be a good year for them to run.
Congress is facing serious issues such as the developments in Syria, health care, and immigration. How much influence will the 4th District representative have in Congress?
Very little on issues like that. The most important role of the 4th District congressperson will be a vote on domestic legislation. And as we can see with the demise of the Trump-Ryan health care plan a few weeks ago, every vote does count and Estes will likely be a fairly strong supporter of the congressional leadership. But if Thompson would win, that's one less vote for Republicans whenever they try to pass something like tax reform or health care. And if Thompson is in Congress, he probably will be less liberal and less tied to the party leadership than most Democrats because he comes from this very conservative district, and party leadership usually gives a pass to people when they're occupying very difficult terrain, like the 4th District would be for a Democrat.
Will this special election be a bellwether for the Trump administration?
The fall of 2016 with Trump’s election was an earthquake for American politics. Tonight will show a little bit about the after-effects of that, and where the parties stand as we go forward into the next election year next year.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar
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