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.
According to Chris Pumpelly, communications director for the Thompson campaign, the strategy to win a special election with a short calendar is driving up turnout among activists and making the race a referendum on Governor Sam Brownback, who according to a recent Kansas Public Radio report is being considered for the post of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations agencies for food and agriculture in Rome, Italy. Pumpelly cites “Brownback hangover” as a factor in the race, referring to several political and policy woes the current governor and state legislature are facing that are almost entirely attributed to the state’s poor financial shape.
Last November, state officials were projecting a $350 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year, and a $600 million deficit for the next year. According to the New York Times, during Brownback’s governorship, Kansas has “repeatedly missed revenue collection targets, has seen its credit rating slashed and has cut funding for some government services.”
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously last month that state spending on public education was “not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the minimum constitutional standards of adequacy.” Article 6 of the Kansas state constitution says “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” According to The Wichita Eagle and The New York Times, education spending accounts for more than half of the state budget.
Brownback’s approval ratings have taken a hit. According to a Morning Consult poll released last September, Brownback was the least popular governor in the country, with a 23 percent approval rating. Several Brownback political allies in the state legislature were ousted during the primary and general elections last year, resulting in Democrats picking up 13 seats in the state legislature, although both chambers remain under control of Republican super majorities.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Sam Brownback has been an unpopular governor,” Brownback’s predecessor Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview. “Any way to tie this race to his failures can be an effective campaign strategy.”
Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, disagrees with the assessment, saying “[Kansas Democrats] are enthused after victories in November, but Estes is a reasonably strong conservative [Republican] in a district that’s been pretty [Republican] and conservative since 1994.” Regarding the Democrats’ efforts to tie him to Governor Brownback, Loomis said, “Estes is very separate from Brownback,” and noted that “He has no real power [regarding the] budget.” He also added that Brownback’s political woes would be a bigger issue in the race to succeed him as governor in 2018.
There are other national and local political dynamics to consider. The American Health Care Act – introduced by House Republicans and approved by three congressional committees on party-line votes – has the potential to upend this and the other House special elections scheduled to take place over the next three months. The bill – which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cause as many as 24 million Americans to lose their health insurance by 2026 – had a 17 percent approval rating in a recent poll. Although Republicans were divided on the bill until the very end when it was pulled before a scheduled vote on the House floor, Democrats across the country now have a political victory they can run on and an issue to run against, as well as government projections to incorporate into their talking points and campaign ads. But even in the middle of the political impasse among congressional Republicans on passing the AHCA, the Kansas House and Senate both voted to expand Medicaid coverage, which Brownback subsequently vetoed.
“You have a dramatic contradiction in what Donald Trump said as a candidate and as a new president,” former Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius said, listing a series of public quotes the from the president during the campaign and after taking office. “If you have tax dollars saved at the federal level, who picks up the cost? You could make the case that it’s folks in Wichita, Kansas or Andover, Kansas losing their health care.”
On the other hand, Sebelius noted, “It’s hard for me to tell how a district that voted for Donald Trump this soon after the election turns against him. Maybe there’s some buyers’ remorse, or they want to give the guy a chance.”
The last Democrat to represent the district was Rep. Dan Glickman, who held the seat from 1977 to 1995, before he went on to serve as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture for the remainder of his presidency. There were several factors that contributed to then-31-year-old Glickman’s victory when he first ran for the seat in 1976. At the time, the Fourth District was seen as a swing district. In Glickman’s words, “It was center-right, but not impossible for Democrats to win.” Jimmy Carter was at the top of the ticket that year and, though he lost Kansas, he did well among rural voters. On top of that, there was still an element of Watergate backlash nationally, which affected incumbent President Gerald Ford because of his decision to pardon his predecessor Richard Nixon. Glickman won the race because of his performance in the suburban and rural areas outside of Wichita. “I won those counties as an insurgent candidate,” he said.
Glickman called Wichita “the industrial heart of Kansas,” noting the role of aviation production to the state economy at the time. Consequently, he pointed out that the Machinists’ Union was very strong in those days, an important constituency for Democratic candidates. Many of the manufacturing jobs in the area have since left, and Wichita has become “a center for call centers.” He also notes that farming income and prices have been declining.
Over time, the state and its electorate became more Republican, making it more difficult for Democrats to get elected, a process that continued long after Glickman lost his seat in the 1994 midterms. In more recent years, Pompeo won his elections by margins ranging from 22 to 34 points. Glickman describes Thompson’s chances next month as “uphill, but not impossible,” and added that part of the challenge was institutional. “The national party has ignored the state,” Glickman said. “The trend in recent years has been that states like Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas have fallen off. I think it has to do with cultural issues, but at the same time the Democratic National Committee has ignored rural states.”
That may be about to change. Pumpelly called it “a false choice” for Thompson or other Democrats to have to choose between urban or rural constituencies. “The largest concentration of voters is in Sedgwick County [which includes Wichita], but we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket,” he explained. At the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Atlanta in late February, a frequent subject of conversation among Democratic officials and the candidates running for party leadership positions was how the party can do a better job to reach out to rural voters. Sebelius noted that DNC chair candidate Tom Perez traveled to Topeka for a listening session with local, county and state chairs this past February while he was campaigning for the position. “I told him I had been involved in elected politics in Kansas for 30 years. This was the first time any DNC official came to our state and talked to people on the ground.” [Perez was ultimately elected to the position in late February.]
Former Kansas House minority leader Paul Davis noted that while Thompson would have to do well in Sedgwick County and Wichita, he could not ignore the more rural, outlying parts of the district. “This has been a very tough economic time in agriculture, and being able to understand the importance that agriculture plays in this district and being able to take the time to listen to people that are farmers or working the agricultural sector, and be able to articulate their issues when you go to Washington DC.” He also noted that Democrats have won in neighboring Cowley County and Sumner County in the past, and if Thompson could do well here that could offset losses in other areas of the district.
Officials from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to requests to comment for this story asking if the committee had plans to deploy personnel and resources for the Kansas special election, though a recent report from NPR said they were doing so for the special election in Georgia.
According to Davis, any potential winning coalition for Thompson will require crossover Republican voters. “I think that is the challenge that is before Jim Thompson in many respects, to be able to convince moderate Republicans to vote for him and at the same time drive Democratic turnout in a special election where there aren’t any other races on the ballot.”
Though the odds are against Thompson – because of the conservative-leaning nature of the district and state, and the accelerated nature of the special election which gives little time to build up fundraising and name recognition – Glickman pointed out the state’s history of “progressive populist views” on issues such as education and civil rights. He also notes the wild card nature of a special election, which generally tends to have lower turnout than regularly scheduled elections in midterm or presidential cycles.
A Thompson victory would be a shocking upset in a solidly Republican state, as well as a warning to the White House, congressional and local Republicans of the volatility of the electorate in 2018. If Thompson loses, Democrats will have an opportunity to study and learn from the results of this race before getting another shot at it in November of 2018. Davis – who lost to Brownback in 2014 – is considering running again next year for the open governor’s race or for the Second Congressional District seat being vacated by Republican incumbent Lynn Jenkins.
Sebelius, the state’s most recent Democratic governor, said she won the Fourth District the four times she was a candidate on the statewide ballot: twice as insurance commissioner and twice as governor.
“You can win in a more conservative state, you can win without sacrificing your values. But you have to show up,” Sebelius said. “You can win in a state like Kansas, James Thompson can get elected in the Fourth Congressional District if you are able to connect with individuals if they understand your ideas and vision are going to make their lives better.”