About two months ago, Colin Curtis received a call from a friend in his native state of Kansas with a long-shot request: The friend was leading a Democratic candidate’s campaign for a House district in the Wichita area, and he wanted Curtis to join.
“I was pretty skeptical. I said that I thought it sounded crazy,” said Curtis, who was at the time living in Washington, DC, and working at the political consulting firm The Strategy Group. But he agreed to sign on. “I told my friends, and they said, ‘Well, good luck. It’d be pretty cool if you could get more than 40 percent of the vote.’”
Now Curtis is hoping for much better than 40 percent. Though still a long shot and a race Democrats are likely to lose, the election is looking surprisingly tight — an internal GOP poll has the race within one point — and has suddenly become freighted with national implications.
The race, for the seat that opened up when former Rep. Mike Pompeo was chosen as Donald Trump’s CIA director, is between Republican Ron Estes, the state’s treasurer, and Democrat Jim Thompson, a civil rights attorney and army veteran who says he was inspired to run by Bernie Sanders. Thompson released a last-minute video on Monday vowing to “make history and shock this country:”
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. Moreover, internal polling from the Thompson campaign shows Trump’s approval rating in the district remains above 50 percent.
But Curtis, who went onto become Thompson’s campaign manager, says he thinks Democrats have reasons to be hopeful. The state’s Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is deeply unpopular. Thompson has seen a sudden influx of resources in the campaign’s home stretch. In the past few weeks alone, the Democrat has raised more than $300,000 and received help from about 1,000 volunteers in the district.
And Republicans are worried. The National Republican Campaign Committee is spending at least $67,000 in TV ads in the district, suggesting that they don’t view the race as a slam dunk. Vice President Mike Pence is making robocalls for the race, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) campaigned for Estes on Monday.
The Kansas 4th could scare Republican House members, encourage Dems to run
Few experts are expecting an outright victory for Democrats in the special election on Tuesday. The Cook Political Report has scored the race as “leans Republican,” noting that Thompson has struggled to get funding from his state party for the race.
“It would be a shock if Democrats won,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But the fact that we're paying attention at all may be indicative of some broader trends about the environment we’re in.”
Some analysts have interpreted the last-minute interventions from Pence and Cruz as a sign that the GOP has internal polling that suggests the race is neck-and-neck. Kondik said some of that is probably overblown.
“My guess is Republicans looked at the polling and it wasn’t quite as good as they hoped. They’re not dropping the hammer in the district as they could,” Kondik said.
Moreover, Democrats don’t appear to be racing to spend money to finish a particularly close race — instead concentrating their resources on a special election in Georgia where they have a much better chance to win. 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 have started a phone campaign Monday to reach 25,000 households, according to the Kansas City Star.)
But the race may still have national consequences even if Republicans hold on as expected, Kondik said. A surprisingly close finish might scare more vulnerable House Republicans into backing off the unpopular drive to repeal and replace Obamacare with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan. It could give Democrats added momentum and energy in the other special election races to come. And by suggesting that even deeply red states may be competitive, Kondik said, the race could make it easier for national Democrats to recruit good candidates in areas where they’ve historically struggled to do so.
“The margin could be more interesting than the outcome,” Kondik said.
This race could tell us more about Kansas’s governor than Trump
Historically, the results of congressional elections have been closely correlated with the popularity of the US president. A big body of political science research has shown that a president’s party tends to rise and fall on his approval ratings. So it’d be tempting to see a Democratic upset as a sign of Trump’s strength.
But that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in Kansas’s 4th District election on Tuesday. Trump remains popular in the district, and so is more of a barrier to Democratic victory than an asset.
Instead, the main focus of Thompson’s campaign has been on 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 that has become Democrats’ main talking point.
Democrats won 13 additional seats in the state legislature in 2016, and Republican lawmakers tied to Brownback, like Estes, faced primary challenges from moderates last year.
“We’re running against the record of the Brownback administration and our opponent not showing up,” said Curtis, Thompson’s campaign manager.
Republicans have counterattacked by saying Thompson supports late-term abortion and “abortion for couples to select the sex of their offspring,” according to the Wichita Eagle. (Independent experts say the sex selection claim is false.)
That hasn’t prevented Thompson from building a surprisingly strong canvassing operation in the district. Part of that is due to Thompson’s unique background — he was a member of the US Army, grew up homeless, and as an attorney sued the city of Wichita on behalf of people who have been shot by police.
“I think that really excites people to have someone who has fought on behalf of the rights of the disenfranchised and abused,” Djuan Wash, a Black Lives Matter activist who worked on Thompson’s campaign, told the Kansas City Star.
Brandon James, president of the Sedgwick County Young Democrats, says both his group and the Wichita State College Democrats were defunct as recently as this fall. Now, both are leading the last-minute canvassing drive to get voters to the polls for Thompson.
“There’s really been a big difference,” he says. “We’re bringing a lot of energy to the table. And we hope it shows on Tuesday.”