When should you pay attention to a congressional race taking place in far-off Wichita?
Kansas Democrats would have us believe that the answer to that question is: right now.
And with a little luck, or maybe a lot, they could be right.
The seat in the state’s 4th District, which includes Wichita, is up for grabs in the wake of former Congressman Mike Pompeo’s elevation to CIA director.
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Here’s the headline: The April 11 special election will be the first congressional contest since the November election that brought the world President Donald Trump.
That means the Kansas contest will be viewed as a very early test of Trump’s policies. Given the wild ups and downs in Trump-land so far, that by itself makes this race worth watching and adds a taste of uncertainty to a seat that has ranked as rock-solid Republican in recent years.
Pompeo won re-election in November with nearly 61 percent, and that’s about the same percentage that Trump got in the 4th District.
Still, given Trump’s volatility, Democrats insist they have a case to make here. They’ve nominated a civil rights lawyer and Army veteran, James Thompson, who happens to be a political newcomer in an era when newcomers have had success. He’s got no voting record.
“For me the things I wanted to work on are the common-sense things that are going to help solve our problems,” Thompson said at his kickoff. “We need jobs, education, and we need to take care of the veterans in our community.”
Democrats already are operating phone banks.
“It’s a big deal,” Kansas Democratic chair Lee Kinch said of the race. “After three weeks of chaos in the Trump administration, voters may be having second thoughts.”
A special election is different from a November general election in that turnout tends to be lower, and the most partisan of partisans turn out. These days, the momentum is on the side of the Democrats.
Meantime, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is under enormous pressure to prove that her party can win seats in the heartland. She was challenged for re-election as leader last fall by an Ohio Democrat who questioned why the party was so weak in the Midwest.
But wrestling the 4th away from the GOP will be an enormous lift. The Republicans have gone with a well-known entity, state treasurer Ron Estes, who once was Sedgwick County’s treasurer.
He’s a safe, dependable choice and not flashy. That may be all the Republicans need.
But Trump isn’t Estes’ only vulnerability. Democrats will attempt to tether Estes to Gov. Sam Brownback, who continues to rank as the least popular governor in America. In 2014, Estes appeared to side with Brownback’s controversial decision to slash taxes two years earlier.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Estes was asked if he still supported Brownback’s income-tax plan.
His answer: “I am cautiously optimistic that it’s going to work.”
Job one for Thompson is to show that he can raise a lot of money fast. If he can, national Democrats may weigh in. He’s a long shot, but then again, these are interesting times.