Editorial: Republicans have reason to be nervous after close Kansas race

Ron Estes claimed a seat in Kansas’ 4th congressional district by a mere 7 points.
Ron Estes claimed a seat in Kansas’ 4th congressional district by a mere 7 points. TNS

President Donald Trump turned to Twitter again Wednesday to place his own singular spin on the news. He proclaimed Tuesday’s GOP victory in Kansas’ 4th District congressional race a “great win” and said Ron Estes prevailed “easily” against Democrats who “spent heavily and predicted victory!”

The president’s statement is misleading on two counts. Estes outspent his Democratic opponent, James Thompson, for one thing. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent nothing in the 4th, while its GOP counterpart spent $100,000. Also, the comment ignores the reality of what just happened in one of the most Republican states in the nation — and what it might mean for Trump going forward.

Trump won Kansas’ 4th District in 2016 by 27 points. On Tuesday, in the first national test of the Republican Party’s electoral strength since November, Estes claimed the seat in the Wichita-area district by a mere 7 points. A win is a win, but underwhelming it was.

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This means your party is going the wrong way, Mr. President. You’re shrinking, or at least your margins are.

And Democrats never predicted victory, either.

Based on the results, Democrats, both in Kansas and nationally, are proclaiming new-found hope in the early months of Trump’s administration. Their party is fired up. In a 4th District that has twice as many Republicans as Democrats, the GOP was forced to pull out all the stops to avoid a debacle.

“This should be a wake-up call to the administration and the Republican Congress,” a GOP House member told The Washington Post Tuesday night.

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But do you really expect this president to glean any lessons from Tuesday?

The efforts to get Estes over the top included Trump himself recording a robocall pleading with voters to go to the polls. Vice President Mike Pence did likewise. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won Kansas’ presidential caucuses last year, flew to Wichita to rally the troops. And the National Republican Congressional Committee flooded Wichita TV in the final days with ads on abortion, a topic that has long worked miracles in the district.

“It’s just plain wrong,” a narrator said in a 30-second spot. “James Thompson supports late-term abortion, even using your tax dollars to pay for abortions.”

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Democrats cried foul, claiming that the ad went too far in describing Thompson’s pro-choice views.

The full-out blitz rescued Estes, the two-term state treasurer. It had him gloating that national prognosticators had his race wrong.

“We really showed the pundits tonight, didn’t we?” he said.

Not entirely, Mr. Estes. Democrats can now look to the 4th District as a national rallying cry for a House takeover in 2018.

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The race left us with some other lessons as well:

▪ Money still matters. Estes raised $312,000 to Thompson’s $254,000 as of late March.

▪ Estes turned down multiple debate opportunities. In this era of heightened voter engagement, that was a mistake.

▪ Candidate quality matters a lot. Estes struggled to explain himself, and his TV spot that showed him standing in a swamp backfired. Thompson, who faced poverty early in life before joining the Army and becoming a civil rights attorney, was effective as a political newcomer and promised to run again.

▪ Tying Kansas Republicans to the unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback is a smart move. It almost worked for Thompson.

“Mr. Estes did not beat us,” Thompson said. “It took a president of the United States, vice president, speaker of the House, the senator coming into our state and a bunch of lies to try to drum up a vote.”

It was just enough — this time.

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