A surprisingly competitive congressional race in Wichita could signal challenges for Johnson County’s Rep. Kevin Yoder and other Kansas Republicans ahead of the 2018 elections.
Republican Ron Estes, the Kansas state treasurer, prevailed against Democrat James Thompson by 7 percentage points in a district that Republicans won by more than 30 points in November. Estes will replace Mike Pompeo, who gave up the seat in January to serve as President Donald Trump’s CIA director.
Estes’ victory was expected in the district where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1, but the Democrats’ ability to bring the race within single digits has been interpreted nationally as a sign that a backlash against the GOP could lie ahead for 2018 when Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, and other GOP incumbents will be up for re-election.
“If we start to see Republicans consistently underperforming … then someone like Kevin Yoder, who is in a much more politically balanced district that Hillary Clinton actually won, needs to be concerned,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
Yoder’s office declined to comment for this article.
Travis Smith, a Kansas City-based political consultant who has worked with Yoder in past elections, said the candidate is ready for a fight in 2018 if he pursues re-election to Congress.
“It is no secret that Hillary Clinton barely won his district, so if Trump sags even a little bit, it just means that Kevin needs to work a little bit harder,” Smith said. “They’ll treat it like a fight. Assuming he runs for re-election, it’s going to be an all-out battle.”
Yoder has also been floated as a potential candidate for the governor’s office in 2018.
National Democrats largely stayed out of the special election in the 4th Congressional District, which had gone for Trump by double-digits in 2016, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already listed Yoder’s seat in the 3rd Congressional District as one of its top targets for 2018.
“There’s no doubt that Kansas is on the map for Democrats in 2018, and vulnerable Republicans like Kevin Yoder should take notice,” said Rachel Irwin, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, in an email.
“James Thompson’s performance is an exciting sign for Democrats and we know that there will also be top-notch candidates in both the Second and Third Congressional Districts. These special election results make clear that voters in Kansas — including Republicans — are ready for a change in leadership,” she continued.
National Democrats’ decision not to expend significant resources on the Wichita race has been criticized by progressives both in Kansas and nationally. National Republicans poured money into the race in the final days to pay for attack ads against Thompson.
Scott Paradise, a strategist who works with Republican candidates in both Kansas and Missouri, said the Estes race should serve as a warning to GOP candidates.
“If I was a member of Congress in a swing district now, my antennae would certainly be raised, and ultimately the takeaway from this is everybody in a remotely competitive district needs to be taking their races seriously,” Paradise said.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of uncertainty around the national political environment, and I think there’s going to be pressure on Republicans in Congress to deliver some results,” he said. “If they successfully do that, the environment could stabilize.”
State Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican who lives in Yoder’s district, said the race should provide lessons for both parties ahead of 2018.
“I guess the lesson that this has for Republicans is work hard and appeal to the middle,” Clayton said, noting that Estes’ campaign did little to appeal to moderate voters. “And what I would say for the Democrats is things are within their grasp if they’re willing to spend a little money.”
Former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican who lost his re-election bid in 2012, said the “state is trending more toward the middle than it used to be and is getting rid of the hard right,” and candidates like Yoder are best served courting the political middle.
“We’ve been occupied by hard-right folks in the last few years. … So I think maybe people are looking at that and thinking that’s more the place to be,” Morris said.
Democrat Jay Sidie, who lost to Yoder by double-digits in 2016, said Tuesday’s results boost his hope that the Democratic Party can win seats in Kansas.
“That tells you that Kansas is turning,” said Sidie, who is weighing another run. He added that 2018 “is going to be a fun year for Democrats, I think.”
A Democrat has not won a congressional seat in Kansas since former Rep. Dennis Moore retired in 2010 and was succeeded by Yoder.
Lawrence Democrat Paul Davis, who narrowly lost to Brownback in the 2014 governor’s race, is weighing a run in the 2nd district.
Sidie is the only candidate to publicly express interest in challenging Yoder so far. Efforts by party officials to recruit former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom for the job have not succeeded.
Stephanie Sharp, a former Kansas lawmaker who served with Yoder in the Legislature, called Estes’ race a blip and said that Yoder has no reason to worry.
“I don’t think that Kevin Yoder will lose. He beat Sidie by 10 points, and Sidie has already said he’s going to run again, which is the best gift Kevin Yoder could have because Sidie’s a terrible candidate,” said Sharp, who works as a political consultant in Johnson County.
Sharp, who backs moderate Republican Ed O’Malley for governor, said that Republicans should be more worried about the governor’s race if another conservative wins the nomination. Brownback’s unpopularity helped sink legislative candidates in 2016 and was a drag on Estes, according to many analysts.
“Let’s say a (Kansas Secretary of State) Kris Kobach wins the primary, then I absolutely believe Kansas is competitive on the Democratic side if they get a good candidate,” she said.
Kobach, a hardline conservative who served on Trump’s transition team, said he will have a decision on whether to run for governor in the near future, but that the party should absolutely nominate another conservative in 2018.
Miller said precincts that Thompson performed well in are affluent precincts that are demographically similar to Johnson County. He won in Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita and its immediate suburbs.
“And that suggests that that kind of voter who would traditionally lean Republican but has soured on the party under Trump and Brownback might be more open to voting for a Democrat next year,” Miller said.
Thompson is the first Democrat to win in Sedgwick County in a federal race since former Rep. Dan Glickman in 1994. No Democrat has won the county in a statewide race since former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2006, according to Miller.
Estes pulled off the victory by dominating the rural counties that make up the rest of the district. Yoder’s district, which includes Johnson and Wyandotte counties, is much more urban and suburban than the 4th district.
Kobach cautioned against using Tuesday’s results to make predictions about races in the Kansas City area.
“I wouldn’t say it’s apples to oranges, but it’s Granny Smith apples to Ruby Red apples. They’re different districts,” he said.
Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, said if the DCCC does put resources toward the 3rd district, it could make a difference. But he was skeptical this would actually happen.
“Saying they’ll target it and following through are two entirely different things,” Rackaway said.
Alex Roarty of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau and Hunter Woodall of The Star contributed to this report.