On Tuesday, voters in south-central Kansas will be the first in the nation to decide a congressional race in the age of Trump. The special election in the Kansas 4th District will replace Mike Pompeo, who now leads the CIA.
It’s a district that would, under normal circumstances, be considered a lock for the Republican candidate. But of course, these are not normal times, and resources are flooding into the district from left and right.
Last November, when Democrats and the rest of the country woke up to Donald Trump’s surprise win, Kansas Democrats had something to celebrate. After years in the wilderness, Kansas Democrats converted a dozen seats in the state Legislature in 2016. Trump’s victory and his appointment of then Kansas 4th District Congressman Mike Pompeo to head the CIA presented another opportunity.
The Democrat is a Sanders guy
James Thompson, a Sanders-inspired newbie, managed to beat a well-known politician in a local party convention to become the Democrats’ candidate in the 4th.
Thompson is a civil rights attorney and strongly pro-union. He grew up dirt poor, mainly in Oklahoma, and he served in the Army, a fact he promotes in his advertisements.
“I want to be your congressman,” states Thompson in one 30-second spot. “I want to fight for your jobs, I want to fight for our veterans, and I want to fight for your personal freedoms,” says Thompson as an image of him aiming a military-style rifle crosses the screen. “My name’s James Thompson. I’m a Kansas veteran, and I approved this message.”
Thompson says he has lots of grassroots support, and he has been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, reportedly, with help from a Sanders email list. The liberal website Daily Kos has been promoting his candidacy, and a group called Democracy for America has been lining up people from across the country to call 4th District voters on Thompson’s behalf.
The Republican is a Trump guy
Thompson’s Republican opponent, Ron Estes, is hardly defenseless. The Kansas 4th is, after all, home to Charles Koch, Koch Industries and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. In addition to Wichita, the district includes most of south-central Kansas, a conservative stronghold. And Estes is an established insider.
“Ron Estes is the Kansas State Treasurer, and he’s not a very well-known person, and nothing against him, but not a very dynamic politician,” says Bob Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University.
Beatty says Estes is, however, a familiar face around Wichita, where he served as Sedgwick County Treasurer. Estes has worked as a manager in the oil and manufacturing businesses. He stands out among Kansas Republicans as an early and avid Trump supporter. Like Trump, Estes promises to cut regulations and bring back manufacturing jobs.
In one ad he stands in an algae-covered pond, repeating Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp.”
“After 8 years of Obama, America is weaker, and the swamp is deeper than we thought,” says Estes, standing in an algae-covered pond. “And now the liberal activists are trying to steal this election, by supporting a Bernie Sanders-backed lawyer,” Estes continues with swamp images flashing on the screen.
4th District race overshadowed
With the Trump guy versus Sanders guy match-up, you'd expect this first congressional election of the new presidency to draw attention. But another race is attracting millions of dollars from all over the country sucking the political oxygen -- money that is -- out of the Kansas 4th where fundraising is measured in hundreds of thousands.
“There’s clearly going to be enough to run a solid campaign,” says Neil Allen, who teaches political science at Wichita State University. “But for both Republicans and especially Democrats, the fact that the Georgia 6th, looks to be very competitive, and that election occurs a week after the Kansas 4th, that has drawn most of the national money.”
That Georgia race is to replace Tom Price, who Trump named to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Georgia's 6th is in suburban Atlanta. It’s also supposed to be a safe Republican seat. But the four viable Republican contenders face one Democrat; and the Democrat, Jon Ossoff, has raised more than $8 million. Ossoff is generating so much support that he threatens to win 50 percent in a crowded field and forego a runoff election. The national GOP is going to the mat to stop him.
While the race in Georgia overshadows the Kansas 4th on the national scene, Thompson isn’t even getting a lot of support from the Kansas Democratic Party. In fact, his campaign has feuded with party leaders over a request for a measly $20,000. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been completely silent in Thompson’s race.
“If the Democrats are going to take the House back, they probably have to take a few districts like the Georgia 6th in the north Atlanta suburbs,” says Allen. “But the Kansas 4th is just a lot more Republican. And the kind of voters that tend to be swinging toward the Democrats are just not that populous around Wichita.”
4th District is tough for Democrats
In the last three congressional elections, Democratic challengers attracted only about 30 percent of the vote against Mike Pompeo. Beatty says it's unlikely Thompson will turn that around in the space of a few months.
“Everybody would just be shocked if Thompson won. Personally, if it were within single digits, in Kansas, I’d say, that’s unbelievable!” says Beatty.
But, guess what, late last week the Kansas 4th District race suddenly popped up on Washington’s radar. The National Republican Congressional Committee abruptly weighed in with an attack ad. Republican operatives have been telling reporters that the Kansas race is uncomfortably close.
Beatty doesn’t buy it. He doesn’t think the talk, or the GOP’s last-minute ad buy necessarily signals a big turn in the race. He says the idea may be simply to make sure that Estes’s base takes the election seriously. Because, as early turnouts indicate, it’s a pretty safe bet that Thompson’s core people will.
Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR, a partner in the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.