Special Elections in Kansas

A contested special election between Republican Ron Estes and Democrat James Thompson in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District caught leaders on both sides of the aisle by surprise, highlighting the disenchantment many Kansans have with Governor Sam Brownback. Liberals argue that the challenge to long-time Republican-held districts in both Kansas and Georgia signals a wider-spread discontent with the current Republican-ruled government at the federal and state level, possibly foreshadowing outcomes of the 2018 congressional midterm elections. Republicans argue that the results of special elections in many state legislatures across the country affirms their popular mandate to govern.

On April 11, 2017, a special election in Kansas’ southern 4th Congressional district, which includes Wichita and Wellington, was held to replace former Representative Mike Pompeo, who was recently appointed as director of CIA by President Trump. The election was not expected to be troublesome for the Republican establishment given President Trump and Representative Pompeo’s significant electoral leads in this district during the 2016 election. Yet, a Republican poll on the brink of the election showed Estes’ lead to be a lot narrower than was originally projected. This prompted a fervor of spending and a swift mobilization of support by Democratic and Republican leaders across the country on behalf of their respective Kansas candidates. Get-out-the-vote calls recorded by President Trump and Vice President Pence flooded the district.

Estes defeated Thompson last Tuesday. However, Thompson earned the majority of the early and absentee votes, and Estes’ victory was only secured by a margin of around 7 percent. Thompson and many other Democrats do not consider this a loss.

“Mr. Estes did not beat us. It took a president of the United States, the vice president, the speaker of the House, a senator coming into our state and a bunch of lies to drum up a vote,” said Thompson, responding to the slight election results.

The close race may be due to the ill-perceived tax policies pursued by Brownback. The state’s budget crisis and its impact on education in Kansas help account for Brownback’s low approval ratings which hover around 26 percent. According to a recent survey by the Morning Consult, Brownback earned the title of the nation’s least popular governor.

Yet, since this is the first congressional election since the start of the Trump Presidency, this may reflect a broader dissatisfaction with the Trump administration and Republican-ruled government. Georgia’s special election to replace Tom Price’s seat April 18—Trump’s new secretary of health and human services—was also close. A subsequent runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel will occur June 20.

On the other hand, Estes says that his victory confirms the will of the people for Republican governance, despite the close special elections and the President’s 40 percent approval rating.

“The pundits…[said] we were going to lose a Republican seat…that it was a chance for the Democrats, they were motivated, there was a lot of angst against the president. But we really showed the pundits tonight, didn’t we?” announced Estes late Tuesday.

Whether or not these narrow victories in the recent special elections spell trouble for Republican-dominated Congress and many of the Republican-held state legislatures in 2018 remains to be seen. Despite Democrats pouring funds in special elections at the state level, they have failed to flip the legislatures of every contested district across a myriad of states since the beginning of 2017. Moreover, Democrats’ ability to isolate contested elections and offer support for congressional candidates in close races seems less aggressive than Republicans’. Democrats did not initiate a get-out-the-vote campaign in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District until after the Republican survey in the district materialized, leaving little time to rally Democrats and sway undecided voters in the district.

Both parties have lessons to learn from the recent special election in Kansas. Republicans might need to emphasize Estes’ victory and Republicans’ state-level victories amidst Trump’s controversial policies in order to secure dominance in the 2018 midterm election. Democrats may need to improve their tactics of gaging popular opinion in congressional elections and increase their response time for offering support to candidates trailing or leading by a margin.

Photo courtesy of Politico.


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