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Kansas special election: a Democrat came surprisingly close to an upset in a deep-red district

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Republicans survived a scare in Kansas’s Fourth Congressional District on Tuesday night, winning a deeply conservative district that was starting to look like it might slip into Democratic control at the last minute.

Republican Ron Estes, the state’s treasurer, defeated civil rights attorney and Democrat Jim Thompson, according to the Associated Press. As of around 10:45 pm, Estes was ahead by about 8 points.

The outcome does not radically alter the composition of power in Washington. Right now, Republicans control 238 seats to Democrats’ 194; a one-seat switch, obviously, wouldn’t do much to loosen that majority.

Next week, Democrats and Republicans will get a rematch in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District — where Democrat Jon Ossoff has raised more money and is doing better in polling than almost anyone predicted.

But, for now, today’s win gives Republicans room to breathe a little easier. Democrats crushed by Donald Trump’s presidency dreamed that they’d begin reversing the tide with this election, the first congressional race since Trump’s inauguration. Instead, they came up short.

Nobody thought this race would be remotely competitive

Still, it’s worth stepping back and looking at just how surprising it is that Democrats were competitive at all in the Kansas Fourth District.

The race opened up after Donald Trump appointed former Rep. Mike Pompeo as the director of the CIA. The district is so deeply red that it’s long flown far below the radar of most of the national media. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 27 points. Democrats haven’t held the seat since 1994, and Pompeo won it last fall 61 to 30.

It’s the home of Koch Industries, the company owned by conservative superdonors Charles and David Koch. Internal polling from the Thompson campaign shows Trump’s approval rating in the district remains above 50 percent.

Democrats didn’t spend money on the race, signaling that they thought the race was a lost cause and instead concentrating their resources on a special election in Georgia where they have a much better chance of winning. (Already, critics have argued national Democrats blew an opportunity.) The Huffington Post’s Igor Bobic and Ryan Grim reported on Sunday that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has largely avoided the race, likely a sign that they don’t view it as winnable.

“There are thousands of elections every year … Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds,” Democratic National Committee Chair Thomas Perez told the Washington Post. (National Democrats had started a phone campaign Monday to reach 25,000 households, according to the Kansas City Star.)

Republicans had confidently projected victory. “The Democrats think so much of their candidate there that they’ve spent zero dollars,” Corry Bliss, executive director of the Republican-allied Congressional Leadership Fund, told the Post. “We’ll win the Kansas election by double digits.”

We’re still waiting for a final tally, but it looks possible that national Democrats may regret holding their firepower in what might have been a winnable race.

Do national politics still trump local factors?

Over the past few decades, special elections have become more and more tied to the popularity of the incumbent president. “Special elections are getting much more nationalized and better reflections of the national partisan mood than they have been,” said Matt Grossmann, a Michigan State political scientist.

But since Donald Trump is popular in the Kansas Fourth, the main focus of Thompson’s campaign was tying Estes to Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS). Estes is Brownback’s treasurer, and Brownback has the lowest approval rating of any governor in United States, largely because of how he’s handled the state’s budget. Brownback passed a massive tax cut for the state’s wealthiest in 2012, leading to the gutting of the state’s education system, which has become Democrats’ main talking point.

“We’re running against the record of the Brownback administration and our opponent not showing up,” said Colin Curtis, Thompson’s campaign manager.

Tonight’s results suggest that even though Trump is pulling in poor ratings nationally, there are parts of America where he remains popular. Internal polling from the Thompson campaign shows Trump’s approval rating in the district remains above 50 percent. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) campaigned in the state. Vice President Mike Pence and Trump both recorded robocalls that went out to Kansas voters for Election Day:

And as long as huge portions of the country remained gerrymandered, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Democrats find the wave they’re looking for.