Government & Politics

Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Ted Cruz wade into Kansas special election in final weeks

Vice President Mike Pence is expected to record a robocall to aid Ron Estes, running for the 4th Congressional District. National Republicans are making a last-minute push as Tuesday’s special election nears.
Vice President Mike Pence is expected to record a robocall to aid Ron Estes, running for the 4th Congressional District. National Republicans are making a last-minute push as Tuesday’s special election nears. The Associated Press

National Republicans are wading into a Kansas congressional race few analysts thought would be competitive ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas will join Republican candidate Ron Estes at an airport rally Monday in Wichita, a day before voters in southern Kansas head to the polls to pick a new congressman. Vice President Mike Pence is also scheduled to record a robocall on Estes’ behalf, according to a state party official.

Cruz’s appearance comes on the heels of last-minute spending on television ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee and a fundraising push by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on Estes’ behalf.

Estes, the state’s twice-elected Republican treasurer, will face off against Democrat James Thompson and Libertarian Chris Rockhold in the race to replace Mike Pompeo, who gave up his seat in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District to serve as President Donald Trump’s CIA director.

Pompeo, a Wichita Republican, easily won re-election in 2016 with more than 60 percent of the vote in the district, which has not gone for a Democrat in more than two decades.

However, the last-minute push by national Republicans has caused analysts in both Washington, D.C., and Kansas to say that the race could be more competitive than previously thought.

Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said the party had always planned a surge of activity in the final weeks of the election and that the push from national Republicans should not be interpreted as a sign the campaign is in danger.

“Special elections are weird. They’re unique because it’s off time. There’s no similar election you can look at. … It’s hard to figure out who exactly your voters are,” Barker said.

Barker said that he had made the request for Pence to record a robocall on Estes’ behalf and believed the vice president would be making the recording Friday.

“I know a lot of people just thought it would be a blowover,” Barker said. “We always remind people about Anthony Weiner’s seat going Republican in a special election.”

Cruz, a Texas Republican, gained national prominence for his hard-line conservative stances in the Senate and was the last major Republican candidate who sought to stop Trump from securing the GOP presidential nomination. He won the Kansas Republican caucus by double digits last year.

“He’s very popular here locally among the base,” said Mark Kahrs, the state’s Republican national committeeman, who served as Cruz’s Kansas campaign chairman and first approached the Texan about campaigning in Kansas for Estes.

Kahrs said early voting has fallen far below projections and that the appearance by the popular senator will help remind people in the Wichita region to head to the polls Tuesday.

“Most people don’t realize that there’s an election on,” Kahrs said. “There’s not a lot of mail. There’s not a lot of TV. Both campaigns have been somewhat under the radar.”

Estes said the event represents a “reach-out to shared supporters” between Estes and Cruz. “A lot of folks supporting me also support Ted Cruz,” Estes said.

Thompson campaign manager Colin Curtis said Cruz’s appearance wouldn’t change their strategy. He said Thompson is focused on turning out voters.

“To us, it just reinforces they’re panicking. They see the numbers, they see the operations we have here, and they see how good a candidate Jim is,” Curtis said.

Thompson’s campaign has sought to tie Estes to Gov. Sam Brownback, a strategy that was successfully used by Democrats in state legislative races last fall against Republican incumbents. Brownback has suffered from low approval ratings in recent years.

Thompson’s campaign has also repeatedly criticized Estes for skipping candidate forums and other public events.

The news of Cruz’s visit comes after a flurry of late campaign spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which steered roughly $92,000 this week toward television and online advertising for the final days of the campaign.

On Friday, the Thompson campaign asked KWCH in Wichita to pull one of the ads, which attacks Thompson on the issue of abortion. The ad says Thompson supports using tax dollars to pay for late-term abortions and supports sex-selective abortions. Curtis called the ad “outright false.”

Dominic Gauna, director of KWCH community relations, said the station had received the request from the campaign and has asked the NRCC to provide information about its claims.

The spending by the NRCC comes after Ryan sent out a “personal request” on Estes’ behalf to GOP donors.

Ryan’s email, which went out last week and was obtained by The Star on Friday, warned GOP donors that Estes’ opponent would “be well-funded by liberal special-interest groups in Washington and their vast resources.” Estes has actually held a fundraising advantage over Thompson for most of the race.

“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. Please consider this a personal request,” Ryan states in the email before asking recipients to forward it on to five of their friends.

Ryan also sent Estes $5,000 from his leadership PAC in February after meeting him, according to an aide.

Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, said that Estes was likely counting on the fact that he was “a good, established statewide name” as the twice-elected state treasurer to carry him to an easy victory.

“You see this when a party has a big win. … The party in power can end up slacking a little bit, not mobilizing well for special elections like this,” said Rackaway, a former Republican strategist.

Dion Lefler of the Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.