The narrative coming into Kansas’s special election for Republicans was they were fighting to hold a ruby red Trump district. Due to their poor performance in the district it is safe to say Democrats have the momentum and narrative on their siding heading into GA-6 next week.
So what happened in Kansas last night? Well, in a district that voted for Trump by 27 percent in November, Ron Estes managed to underperform Donald Trump by just a tad less than 20 percent. Estes managed to run one of the most uninspired campaigns in recent memory and had to fall back on the redness of the district. I guess you could call this foolish or just running out the clock (ask Hillary how well that always works out).
Until last week the district looked like a lock for the GOP. That was until local GOP officials looked at early voting numbers and called in the big guns (Pence, Trump and Cruz). They had reason to be worried.
The early voting numbers were astonishingly in Thompson’s favor. Out of 15,000 ballots cast he took 61 percent of the vote. In urban precincts in Sedgewick, the heart of the district, he overperformed Clinton in every district in the city (quite a feat). But the one thing Thompson could not do was overcome the red tide in the rural areas. Outside of Sedgewick, Thompson did not win a single county (though winning Sedgewick is a feat by itself).
Obviously, Democrats have reason to gloat. They singlehandedly turned an R+27 district into a R+5 district in a night. They also might have hit on a theme in future special elections of allowing their candidates to not be tied to DC Democrats (good luck with that in GA-8).
But, there are several reasons to urge caution here. First, special elections are low turnout affairs. In 2016, 274,500 voters showed up to vote for President while turnout barely eclipsed 100,000 this go-round. Low turnout affairs even in heavily GOP districts tend to hurt the majority party more than the minority party (Republicans being more likely to turn out or not be damned).
Second, Ron Estes ran a horrible campaign in which he basically disappeared and hoped the redness of the district could carry him through. It did. But not by much. Third, national Democrats did not play in this race probably out of fear it would connect Thompson to DC. This helped Thompson but it also means if the party wants to win in red territory they won’t be able to give many resources to the individual candidates running.
Finally, it is said all elections are local and this one proved to be no exception. Governor Sam Brownback is extremely unpopular and local Democrats tried to make the race more about Brownback than Trump. It probably succeeded to a degree.
Moving forward, Democrats don’t have the luxury of running against a unpopular GOP Governor in Georgia, Montana or Pennsylvania. In Georgia, it won’t be hard for Republicans to tie Ossof to Pelosi and in Montana the GOP has a former statewide candidate on the ballot. Further, Trump is still popular statewide in Montana and GA-6 according to recently surveys.
If Republicans are smart they will take away from this contest they cannot take anything for granted. That said, they also should not freak out. All the circumstances of this special election were unique to this election. In regular turnout elections, Estes is probably set to win by 20 points more (a return to the electoral norm). Democrats made this race interesting but it far from guarantees them success moving forward.