Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old upstart making a run for Tom Price’s former congressional seat representing the Atlanta suburbs, will finish tonight’s jungle primary with approximately 48.6 percent of the vote – 1.4 percent shy of the 50 percent threshold needed to win the seat outright. He will face off against former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel in a head-to-head runoff election on June 20.
Democrats in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District had coalesced around Ossoff, while the Republican voters were divided among 11 other candidates, with Handel emerging as the leading Republican with 19.5 percent of the vote.
The race was the focus of intense outside spending and activism, particularly on the Democratic side. Outside groups spent a combined $8.2 million in this race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The organization also reported that a staggering 95 percent of Ossoff’s campaign donations came from outside of the district.
This is the second special election for a congressional seat since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency. Last week, Democrat James Thompson overperformed by 20 points in an ultimately losing effort to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Mike Pompeo. Ossoff, unlike Thompson, was running in a much more competitive district. Donald Trump won the district by 1.5 points, despite the fact that incumbent Republican Congressman Tom Price won reelection by 24 points, as well as the fact that the district has not had a Democratic congressman since 1979. Though it was viewed as a more winnable seat than the Kansas counterpart up for grabs a week earlier, the concern now for Democrats is if Ossoff can still maintain or even increase his support in a race against a single Republican candidate with unified party support. It was for that reason that Ossoff and Democrats were trying to deliver a knockout punch today by clearing the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff election.
WICHITA, Kan. – State treasurer Ron Estes was elected to the House of Representatives, despite a close race by his opponent, civil rights attorney and political novice James Thompson, who had the best performance of any Democratic candidate in this district in 21 years. In a district where Republicans enjoy a 2-1 party registration advantage that President Donald Trump and Rep. Mike Pompeo won by 27 and 31 points last fall, Thompson lost by just shy of seven points. This marks a 24-point shift in the Democrats’ favor in the same race from last November.
“What’s hard to get my head around is that the last time we elected a Democrat from this district was in 1992. The last time a Democrat candidate broke 40 percent of the vote was 1996, and the guy who ran five months ago got 31 percent more of the vote than the Democrat did. It’s huge momentum,” Kansas House minority leader Jim Ward (D-Wichita) said in an interview.
Though Thompson lost the race, the mood of the candidate and his supporters at the election watch party on Tuesday night was far from defeated. Thompson told reporters that Estes didn’t win the race, attributing the victory to the last-minute interventions of President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Thompson also called Estes “a weak candidate” and declared his candidacy for the same seat for the 2018 midterm elections, adding, “Mr. Estes won the battle, but he didn’t win the war.”
“We heard a lot from the national media and from people outside the state that we weren’t going to be able to win this race. We showed tonight that we were,” Estes said. “We’re still a Republican seat. … We sent a message across the country that we’re still Republican. That message should echo.
“For far too long, Washington hasn’t worked for us. We need to make sure that changes,” Estes said. “Tonight is a symbol of that.”
He dismissed “angst against the president” and that the election “was a chance for the Democrats.”
“We really showed the pundits tonight, didn’t we?” he asked, to applause and cheers.
Thompson started the night with strong numbers out of Sedgwick County – the most populous of the district’s 17 counties, which includes Wichita – in part because of early voting. Estes was able to make up an initial deficit of nearly 6,000 votes in Sedgwick County in more rural counties in the district as well as voters who turned out on Election Day. Thompson wound up winning Sedgwick County by 1,874 votes, but lost every other county in the district.
Emily Percival, a registered nurse who works at a local hospital in Wichita, said she voted for Thompson because “I tend to care more about social issues than big business. Because of my profession, I frequently deal with the most vulnerable in our population,” and noted Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s recent veto of Medicaid expansion which passed with bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
Susan, a paraeducator and registered Republican, said she voted for Estes in part because of the national attention on the race. “The rest of the nation is looking at this election to see if we are supportive of Donald Trump’s initiatives,” she said, while also noting her pro-life position. She added that she had some issues with the negativity of Estes’s campaign commercial attacking Thompson on abortion, but noted “There’s never a perfect candidate.”
Mike, a retiree and registered Democrat, said he voted for Thompson because, “I’m not satisfied with the state government, which is run by Republicans. We need a change of everything, from the president on down.”
Greg Gourley, a registered Republican who works in the aerospace industry, said he crossed party lines and voted for Thompson. “Estes would support Brownback. I don’t agree with the policies of the current administration.” He also noted that he had voted for some Democratic candidates in the past, adding, “I tend to vote the issues, not the party.”
Barbara, a retiree, said “[Estes] is the best man for the job. He’s against late-term abortions. He’s a Republican, and I’d like to replace [Mike Pompeo] with another Republican.”
Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman told the Wichita Eagle that turnout could potentially double the expected 20 percent, though final numbers were still not available.
Although Republicans managed to avoid what would have been a shocking upset in this race, now they must focus their attention on the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District scheduled for next week. President Trump won that district by one point in 2016, and the Cook Political Report recently ranked the race as a toss up.
“The Democratic Party needs to remember there are more than just a few states that are in play. We need to make sure that they step up and help out and not wait until the last minute,” Thompson told reporters. “The national party was concentrating on Georgia. It’s a close race, and they should take that. We’ve shown that it’s possible. People didn’t give us credit here, didn’t think it was possible, but they came in at the last minute and tried to help out and we appreciate it. We need to make sure that we have a true 50-state strategy in place to make all races competitive.”
According to Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, “[A Thompson win] would be a national event, interpreted as huge Trump loss. [A Thompson loss] under 10 point [margin] would be significant,” he wrote in an e-mail, noting this might make both national parties focus more attention on congressional races in the Second and Third Congressional Districts for the 2018 midterms.
WICHITA, Kan. – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned hundreds of local Republicans of the dangers of complacency as part of a last-minute push to turn out voters for state treasurer Ron Estes, the Republican candidate in tomorrow’s special congressional election.
“The eyes of the whole country are on Kansas,” Cruz said.
Besides Cruz’s last-minute campaign rally, the National Republican Congressional Committee made a $92,000 expenditure in this race. [According to the New York Times, the NRCC received a poll last week showing Estes ahead only by single digits.] House Speaker Paul Ryan sent out a fundraising email and donated $5,000. Vice President Mike Pence’s robocall, it was revealed today that President Trump himself recorded a robocall on Estes’s behalf. The Cook Political Reportshifted its assessment of the race from Likely Republican to Lean Republican. From their analysis:
Republicans familiar with recent polling describe extremely high Democratic intensity and very low GOP enthusiasm in what is likely to be a very low turnout special. More than that, Estes appears to be swept up in a last-minute vortex of factors outside his control: Democrats’ anger towards Trump, independents’ anger towards Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP dissatisfaction with early administration failures.
Estes himself was optimistic about the race entering the final stretch. “There’s been a lot of enthusiasm the last couple of weeks. People are now starting to focus on April 11 and really going to turn out,” he said during a brief interview after the rally. “There’s a lot of people, a couple of weeks ago they were doing other things, maybe the basketball tournament. But now they’re focusing on the election and really want to have a representative.”
The people at the rally were of all ages and walks of life. One local father took his two middle school-aged children out of class early so they could attend the rally on Monday afternoon, which he described as “a civics lesson.”
“I hope it turns out good,” Robert Pell, a Republican committeeman from Wichita said. He noted he had seen more yard signs for Thompson than Estes, who had not put out as many. He cited the Second Amendment and repealing Obamacare as his two major issues in this race.
Melissa Stout said this was her first campaign event, and she came to hear from both Cruz and Estes. She ranked her issues in the election as “standing behind our president,” opposition to abortion, and support for the Second Amendment.
In his speech, Cruz mentioned four “big things” Republicans had on their plate for 2017: the Supreme Court, repealing Obamacare, regulatory reform, and tax reform. “We have a Republican president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate. How about we act like it?” Cruz asked rhetorically, to applause from the audience. “If we accomplish all four things, 2017 will be a blockbuster year. If we fail, 2017 will be a heartbreaking year.”
A Thompson victory in the Fourth Congressional District would probably draw comparisons to Scott Brown’s improbable U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts in 2010, though Thompson’s would not be as consequential to the balance of power in Congress. The special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District scheduled for April 18 is another worry for national Republicans. The Cook Political Report recently rated the Georgia race as a toss up.
When viewed individually, the Kansas and Georgia races might be dismissed as a fluke. Taken into conjunction, happening in two different regions of the country within the span of a week, both in districts considered safely Republican, these two races would cause alarm among Republicans. Less than one hundred days into the Trump presidency, they would be indicators of the volatility of the electorate going into 2018, particularly for Republican chances of retaining control of the House of Representatives.
I’m traveling to Wichita tomorrow to cover the final days of the special election in the Fourth Congressional District, which is scheduled for next Tuesday. Recent developments indicate a much closer race than predicted in a district Donald Trump won by 27 points last November. There are no public poll numbers available for this race, but recent actions taken by national Republicans to lock down this race speak volumes:
Vice President Mike Pence recorded a robocall on behalf of Republican candidate Ron Estes. (The Washington Examiner quoted an anonymous Kansas Republican saying, “Ron’s run a horrible campaign. Hasn’t raised much money, his ads are abysmal — no energy.” “It’s a low turnout special and weird things happen.”)
Mark Kahrs, a Kansas Republican national committeeman, told the Kansas City Star that early voting numbers are below projections, and that Cruz’s last-minute appearance will help with voter turnout on Tuesday.
NOTE: I am told by the Sedgwick County Election Office that the early voting numbers are updated after the polls close at the end of each day, so more numbers will be coming today and in the days ahead. According to state law, early voting ends at noon on Monday.
Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky. Senator Pat Roberts and Governor Sam Brownback both won their respective races in 2014 despite showing abysmal early poll numbers and running less-than-stellar campaigns.
The first congressional election of Donald Trump’s presidency is one week away. Although Republicans are strongly favored to retain the seat formerly held by Rep. Mike Pompeo, the race is seen as the Democrats’ first test of candidates, messages, strategies, and tactics in an effort to win a series of special elections over the course of the next three months, and to prepare for midterm elections in 2018. Kansas Democrats chose James Thompson, a civil rights attorney from Wichita, as their standard bearer to run against state treasurer Ron Estes. Can a Democrat win in a solidly Republican state representing a district that includes Koch Industries? The answer is yes, though it will be an uphill battle based on historical trends and more recent developments in the state. If elected, Thompson would be the first Democrat to hold the seat in more than two decades, and would be the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation.