All eyes on Kansas in first congressional election of Trump era

Voters headed to the polls Tuesday in Kansas for the first congressional election since Donald Trump won the White House. Republican Ron Estes is favored, but the race has suddenly drawn national interest as a potential test of whether the anti-Trump organizing campaigns can move voters to the polls.

The special election in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District pits Estes, the twice-elected Kansas state treasurer, against civil rights attorney and army veteran James Thompson. They are vying for the seat vacated by Mike Pompeo, who was picked by Trump to be CIA director. Libertarian Chris Rockhold is also running.

Kansas is not a swing state in presidential elections, and the last time a Democrat won its Fourth Congressional District was 1992. This past fall, Donald Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in the district by 27 points, and Pompeo bested his Democratic rival by 31 percentage points.

Yet districts that have been held for a long time by a single party can be unexpectedly vulnerable to strong challenges during special elections, which often feature unpredictable turnout among voters. And because Republicans already control both chambers of Congress and the White House, liberal voters may be more motivated to turn out than conservatives.

Additionally, party get-out-the-vote machinery tends to fall into disarray when not regularly used, and safe districts with little in the way of strong general-election challenges provide few incentives to build and maintain an electoral infrastructure.

Thompson’s campaign in the district proved to have surprising momentum, forcing national Republicans to pitch in to bolster Estes in what should have been an easy Republican seat to hold.

Colin Curtis, Thompson’s campaign manager, told the Kansas City Star that Estes has “taken the district for granted and the people for granted. He expects these voters just to show up and blindly vote for him because he’s a registered Republican.”

Across the country, both parties have had surprise special-election victories in recent years. “I know a lot of people just thought it would be a blow-over,” Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, told the Star. “We always remind people about Anthony Weiner’s seat going Republican in a special election.”

Kansas is also going through a wrenching political period after a Republican experiment with massive income tax cuts led to budgetary shortfalls, which are projected to reach more than $1 billion by the middle of 2019. That has transformed the normal political conversation in the state and led even Republican legislators to back tax increases in an effort to fix the state revenue gap, though their efforts have yet to succeed. One thing they did do, though, is give Kansas Democrats and GOP moderates more seats in the state legislature last fall, at the same time Trump was elected.

Shortly after the failure of Trump’s Obamacare repeal efforts last month, the more moderate Kansas state legislature voted to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the expansion, and the GOP-controlled Kansas House narrowly upheld his veto.

And then there’s the question of the Estes campaign itself, which has been mocked for an ad featuring him in chest-high waders in a literal swamp, promising to drain the metaphorical one in Washington. His ads have focused more on reining in Washington excesses, while Thompson’s have focused on biography and the struggle to get out of poverty and to live as a member of the working class in Kansas.

“Ron’s run a horrible campaign. Hasn’t raised much money, his ads are abysmal — no energy,” a Kansas Republican operative told the Washington Examiner. “It’s a low turnout special, and weird things happen.”

That has led national Republicans to pile in to try to save the race, partly at Barker’s request. “I am personally reaching out to you today to help strengthen our House majority by electing Ron Estes in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District,” House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote in an email appeal. “As a friend of Ron’s and as House Speaker, I can tell you that this is one of the most important House races in the country.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, stumped for Estes on Monday in Wichita, urging voters to take nine others to the polls with them and warning, “Our enemy right now is complacency.” Cruz, a former 2016 presidential candidate, beat Trump in the Kansas Republican presidential primary caucus last year.

Vice President Mike Pence recorded a robocall over the weekend. So did President Trump, speaking out on a one-minute, five-second robocall that went out to tens of thousands of likely GOP voters Monday.

“I have something big to tell you. … On Tuesday, Republican Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly,” Trump said in the recording.

“Ron is a conservative leader who’s going to work with me to make America great again. We’re going to do things really great for our country. Our country needs help. Ron is going to be helping us, big league. … This is an important election.”

On Tuesday, he followed up with a tweet:

Though Trump is polling at roughly 40 percent nationally, his support remains strong in solidly Republican areas as well as among party members.

“People here still like Trump,” Thompson told the Washington Post. “It’s not been a referendum on him. It’s a referendum on the failed Republican leadership in the state. People don’t want these policies taken to the national level.”

That hasn’t stopped Thompson from allying himself with the anti-Trump resistance in no uncertain terms, tweeting out the hashtag #resistance in thanks to the local anti-Trump Indivisible group that has been organizing on his behalf.

Thompson’s message has focused on working-class families, veterans, the Constitution and the need for a political change.

An earlier, much less high-powered Trump team effort to buoy a candidate in the state fell flat in February, when White House-backed Alan Cobb failed to make it out of the GOP special election primary. Sam Clovis, the one-time Trump campaign co-chair, had sent a letter supporting Cobb to the 126 state party delegates that would pick a candidate, and Trump social media guru Dan Scavino tweeted on his behalf. Cobb also had strong ties to the Kochs, as the former Kansas director of Americans for Prosperity and a one-time lobbyist for Koch Industries.

In the end, Estes’ long tenure in the district and history of winning office statewide made the difference.

Voter turnout so far has been low but has seen a disproportionately high share of Democrats, given the district’s historic GOP tilt. Thompson raised a quarter of a million dollars in the final days of the race, much of it in small-dollar donations via liberal fundraising sites.

On Monday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had been staying away from the contest, entered the race to do last-minute live calls to 25,000 households.

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