Republican Ron Estes will be the next congressman from the state of Kansas, but his victory Tuesday night did not come as easily as many expected in the deep-red state.
GOP strategists warned in recent days that Democrat James Thompson, a civil rights attorney, was in striking distance against Estes, the Kansas state treasurer from Wichita, in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo.
Estes trailed Thompson early in the night, but began to pull ahead around 9 p.m. In the end, Estes prevailed with 53 percent to Thompson’s 46 percent. Libertarian candidate Chris Rockhold drew about 2 percent of the vote.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district nearly 2-to-1 and the fact that Thompson made the race competitive will likely have reverberations both nationally and in Kansas as the state moves into 2018 with the governor’s office up for grabs.
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Pompeo, a Republican who won by 31 percentage points in November, gave up his seat in the 4th Congressional District in January to serve as Trump’s director of the CIA.
However, Estes framed himself as an underdog after he was declared the winner.
“We heard a lot from the national media and from people outside the state that we weren’t going to be able to win this race. We showed tonight that we were,” Estes said. “We’re still a Republican seat. ... We sent a message across the country that we’re still Republican. That message should echo.
Estes’ victory came after the president and vice president recorded robocalls to urge GOP voters to the polls, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas flew into Wichita for a rally Monday and the National Republican Congressional Committee flooded Wichita television with abortion-themed attack ads against Thompson. The flurry of activity from national Republicans in a usually safe Republican seat attracted national attention.
Trump made a personal push for Estes on his Twitter account Tuesday morning.
“Ron Estes is running TODAY for Congress in the Great State of Kansas,” Trump tweeted. “A wonderful guy, I need his help on Healthcare & Tax Cuts (Reform).”
The last time a Democrat won the 4th Congressional District was in 1992, but strategists on both sides of the political divide correctly predicted a single-digit race heading into Tuesday. Thompson won the city of Wichita, but Estes dominated in the surrounding rural areas.
The results suggest Democrats can’t be counted out, even in Kansas — a solid Republican state — and can mount challenges that have realistic chances of producing a win.
“Democrats are fired up and they’re mobilizing,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
Some Democrats are smelling blood in the water, Rackaway said. Estes’ narrow win could be a bad omen for U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican who is up for re-election in 2018 in a district that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race.
But the race may also be seen as a missed opportunity for the party. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee provided phone banking on behalf of the Thompson campaign in the race’s final 24 hours, but did not spend money on television advertising like its Republican counterpart.
Thompson campaign manager Colin Curtis said that the Republican-leaning district was “probably a hard sell for them” and that the Thompson campaign “always planned to do this ourselves.”
Curtis said that Republicans’ overconfidence enabled Democrats to make the race more competitive than most analysts initially expected.
“I think the key was that Republicans took this for granted,” Curtis said. “They saw this seat as one that was safe for them. They just had to put their name on the ballot, and Ron Estes was going to be a congressman in a few months.”
Missteps by the Estes campaign also helped fuel Thompson’s rise, Curtis said. A television ad in which Estes stood in a swamp as an echo to one of Trump’s campaign slogans became the base image for a Kansas Democratic Party mailer, which also featured Brownback’s head digitally imposed onto the body of an alligator.
“He gave us great imagery to use against him. For a politician to climb into a swamp and look as uncomfortable as possible was a gift for us to be able to use it on mail,” he said.
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said that Brownback and Trump’s early stumbles in office both hurt Estes’ campaign.
“People are already unhappy with Sam Brownback and they’re seeing a lot of the same trends from Donald Trump,” Ward said. “I think the two of them together it motivates Democrats, but it also gives pause to a lot of Republicans.”
Brownback’s associates dismissed the idea that the governor was a drag on Estes.
“I believe that after tonight, the KS Republican Party will be 32-0 in federal and statewide elections since nominating Sam Brownback for Governor,” Brownback’s former chief of staff, David Kensinger, said in an email. “Good headline, no?”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who served on Trump’s transition team, pushed back on the idea that the vote would be a reflection of Trump’s first few months as president.
“Regardless of what the result is, I don’t think you take it either way as a ringing endorsement or an indictment” of Trump, Kobach said at Estes’ watch party in Wichita.
Daniel Salazar, Jonathan Shorman and Dion Lefler of the Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.