Democratic strategists said in interviews that they suspect Republicans are trying to make sure Estes avoids a victory so narrow that it would spur more panic for the party and talk of a Democratic wave in next year’s midterm elections. “This is a margin play,” one strategist said.
Thompson has raised a respectable sum—more than $250,000—on his own and with help from fundraising pitches from Daily Kos and Our Revolution, the advocacy group that grew out of the Sanders campaign. That’s put him on par with Estes, at least until the late assistance from the NRCC.
Unlike in Georgia, the proxy battle in the Kansas race is about the state’s governor, not the president. A years-long budget crisis blamed on Brownback’s first-term tax cuts has depressed the conservative governor’s approval ratings to among the lowest in the nation, prompting a voter backlash at the polls in 2016 that sent a new wave of Democrats and moderate Republicans into the state legislature.
The Republican-controlled legislature nearly overrode Brownback vetoes of a tax increase and a Medicaid expansion in the last two months, falling just a few votes shy in both instances. Moderates won local elections around the 4th district’s Wichita base, and Thompson’s campaign has tried to tie Estes to Brownback every chance they get. When the governor endorsed Estes earlier this month, it was the Democrat’s campaign that trumpeted the news.
“It’s not about Trump. It’s about Kansas,” Pumpelly said. “The Republican Party has abandoned the people that elected them, and a man like Ron Estes will do nothing but follow the orders of Sam Brownback. If he couldn't stand up to Sam Brownback, there's no way in hell he's going to stand up to Donald Trump when he needs to.”
Jobs, education, and support for veterans have been Thompson’s top policy priorities, and Pumpelly said he was willing to work with the president on issues where they agree, like increased infrastructure investment. “They don’t love or hate Trump,” he said about voters in the district. “James is not interested in going out and just trying to be a thorn in the side of President Trump. That’s not what he’s about.”
Because Trump hired so many Republican lawmakers to serve in his Cabinet, Tuesday’s vote in Kansas is the first of four special elections in GOP districts this spring. (Two Democrats are facing off in California after a non-partisan primary for the seat vacated by former Representative Xavier Becerra when he became the state’s attorney general.)
Special elections have a mixed record in predicting midterm outcomes, but unexpected victories can generate momentum and help a party recruit candidates for the next year’s races. Democrats will need to capture 23 Republican seats to win back the House in 2018—a haul that political forecasters consider difficult but not impossible, considering the party holding the White House usually loses seats in its first midterm election.
Democrats don’t need to win Kansas’s 4th district seat to seize the majority, and on Tuesday, neither party thinks they’re going to. But having narrowly won control of the government for the first time in a decade last fall, Republicans aren’t leaving even the safest-seeming seats to chance.