Kansas has been reliably Republican in federal elections, but GOP operatives head into Tuesday uncertain of an easy victory when the deep-red state holds the first congressional election since President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Republican Ron Estes, the twice-elected state treasurer, faces Democrat James Thompson and Libertarian Chris Rockhold in the race to replace former Rep. Mike Pompeo, who gave up his seat in January to head the CIA.
Pompeo, a Wichita Republican, won re-election in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District by 31 percentage points in November. The last time a Democrat won the district — which is home to Republican megadonor Charles Koch — was in 1992.
But Republicans say they are in a tight race.
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“I’ve heard people whose opinions I respect tell me they think it would be single digits,” said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have recorded robocalls to urge voters in the Wichita area to vote for Estes. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican firebrand who won the state’s GOP presidential caucus last year, flew into Wichita for a rally Monday.
An internal poll circulating among Republicans showed Estes up by only a single point as of last week. Trump’s call suggests the urgency of the situation. “Ron Estes needs your vote, and needs it badly,” the president says in the call to voters.
An Estes loss — or even a win by only a slim margin — would likely be read nationally as a sign of a backlash against Trump in the heartland and be seen more locally as a renewed vitality for Kansas Democrats as they head into 2018 with the governor’s office and the rest of the state’s U.S. House seats up for election.
Many GOP operatives have blamed the surprisingly competitive race on Estes’ campaign, which saw the Republican treasurer avoid some candidate forums and shoot an ad where he stood in a swamp and asked voters to help him drain it in a nod to one of Trump’s campaign slogans.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Estes’ swamp ad was problematic both because “the image is ripe for mockery” and because Estes, as a two-term state official, cannot credibly run as an outsider who is going to drain the swamp.
Democrats have used the image of Estes standing in the swamp and superimposed Gov. Sam Brownback’s head on an alligator swimming alongside him.
“You really stay away from situations where you can be mocked or become an internet meme, and obviously him standing in a swamp with gators is going to bring a lot of chortles to the opposition,” Beatty said.
Barker said he’s received a lot of complaints about the campaign but that this was not uncommon in close races.
“You start getting people on the side saying they should’ve done this or they’ve should’ve done that,” he said.
Barker said the party has focused on turning out diehard Republican voters.
“We always thought turnout would be 20 percent, maybe a little lower, so we focused on the voters that we had to get,” he said.
Colin Curtis, Thompson’s campaign manager, said 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.”
He said that Thompson, a civil rights attorney, has crisscrossed the district to meet with voters in diners and coffee shops, attend community forums and go door to door.
“It’s definitely competitive. You can look at the early vote numbers. We’re neck and neck,” he said.
Nearly 13,000 GOP voters had cast ballots in advance by mail or in-person compared to about 10,900 Democrats as of Monday morning, according to data provided by the Republican Party. Another 3,400 unaffiliated voters, who could tip the balance, had also cast ballots.
Estes’ campaign manager, Rodger Woods, stressed the importance of turnout in the campaign’s final 24 hours in an email.
“Turnout is vital in Special Elections and in the next 24 hours we are focused on getting our voters to the polls on April 11,” Woods said. “We feel confident that South-Central Kansas wants to elect a conservative problem solver who is committed to balancing the budget, repealing and replacing Obamacare and protecting the unborn.”
Thompson’s supporters say their candidate’s hard work has energized grass-roots activists and made the race competitive unlike previous Democratic campaigns, which fell flat. Thompson’s unique biography — he was homeless as a child and served in the U.S. Army — has helped him appeal to voters.
As an attorney, Thompson has sued the city of Wichita on behalf of people who have been shot by police, according to Djuan Wash, a Black Lives Matter activist who has served as the campaign’s director of African-American outreach.
“I think that really excites people to have someone who has fought on behalf of the rights of the disenfranchised and abused,” Wash said.
Estes has seen a flood of spending by national Republicans in the final days of the race, while Thompson’s campaign struggled to get the Kansas Democratic Party or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to devote significant financial resources.
“There was potential here,” Curtis said. “We tried to make that selling point. We didn’t get buy-in initially.”
The DCCC did not directly answer a question about the organization’s lack of spending in the race, but it did tout that it would be launching a phone campaign Monday to reach 25,000 households in Kansas to encourage voter turnout.
Meredith Kelly, the DCCC’s spokeswoman, said it’s clear Thompson has “worked harder and smarter than his opponent, and national Republicans are feeling the pressure in their effort to hold onto this reliable seat.”
Jesse Hunt, the press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the organization was confident that Estes will “close strong in the final days” and that GOP voters will turn out to “help send Ron to Washington to help support President Trump and Republican leadership in Congress.”
Curtis said the robocalls from Trump and Pence, Cruz’s appearance, and the late spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee were a sign of Republicans’ concerns.
“You don’t sound the alarm if you think you’re safe,” he said.
Jonathan Shorman of the Wichita Eagle and Alex Roarty of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.