A Relatively Close Call on the Plains

That wasn’t a windstorm that blew through Kansas on Tuesday night to blow away all the smoke from that controlled prairie burn, but rather a collective sigh of relief by the state’s Republican Party. The Fourth Congressional District remains in the loving hands of the GOP, despite a confluence of circumstances that made it harder than usual.
State Treasurer Ron Estes wound up beating attorney and political neophyte James Thompson in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who left his seat to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, albeit by less than seven percentage points. That might seem a comfortable margin in some districts, but it’s a 25-point drop from Pompeo’s victory last November, and it took a big chunk of last minute media money from the national party and a visit by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and robocalls from the President and Vice-President to salvage that. It’s close enough by Kansas standards to give Democrats some hope in more traditionally competitive districts, and inspire a similar nervousness among the Republicans.
Neither party should read to much into it, though, as there were the predictable all-politics-is-local factors that likely won’t be replicated elsewhere. Kansas’ Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is currently the least popular governor in the country, being hated with a red-hot passion by all the Democrats and having spent the past six waging a civil war on the more pragmatic sorts of budget-balancing Republicans who are still quite numerous around here, and for some reason party poo-bahs in the district chose a candidate from his cabinet. Special elections are typically low-turnout affairs every, so when it happens where a highly energized Democratic base and Republican base that isn’t at all enthused by its candidate and no longer frightened by the prospect of President Hillary Clinton or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is bound to tighten a race.
Estes lacked Pompeo’s stellar credentials and polished appeal and ran an awful campaign, forgoing the usual retail campaigning and skipping debates and constantly running a much-ridiculed ad where he’s wearing waders and standing in a swamp full of alligators and snakes and a harmless-looking turtle. The opponent ran an unusually shrewd campaign, using plenty of shoe-leather at all the obligatory greasy spoon meet-and-greets and showing up at every debate, and his ads took care to mention his military record and show him firing off rounds the very same “assault rifle” that the last Democratic congressman we had here a few decades had foolhardily voted to ban, and for a Democrat a projected a very regular Kansas guy image, and although his party establishment proved stingy he still fired up the base enough to get sufficient small donations to blanket the local airwaves and internet connections with it. Republicans can hope that future candidates won’t repeat the same mistakes elsewhere, and be confident that few Democrats will allow themselves to be seen firing semi-automatic weapons.
Certain sorts of Republicans will tell themselves that President Donald Trump’s last minute intervention turned the tide from what was rumored to be a late polling deficit before that last minute money-infusion, and all sorts of Democrats will be hoping that Trump was largely responsible for that 25 point drop from a mere four years ago, but they’re both only partly right, and the way it played out here doesn’t predict anything about any other race around the country. Trump carried the district by 27 points, but that’s five less than Pompeo’s winning margin and no better than what any old Republican presidential nominee could expect, and he finished a distant third to Cruz in the caucus voting, so absent that terrifying prospect of a President Hillary Clinton there’s not much enthusiasm for him around here. He does have his fans, though, many of them the types who wouldn’t ordinarily be voting in a low-turnout special election if not for a presidential robocall, and the more pragmatic Republicans types who always vote even in April aren’t going to let Trump’s endorsement change their vote one way or the other. We don’t think that Democrats can expect a 25 point drop in any other district due to Trump, as it probably didn’t happen here, but we will allow that there was a certain Trump-related enthusiasm gap here that Trump and the lack of a Hillary Clinton-esque villain had something to do with it.
Any Democrats searching for nuggets of hope from the race should dig deep into the district’s peculiar demographics, and take note that Thompson did wind up winning Sedgwick County, which includes the 50th most populous American metropolitan area of Wichita and most of the district’s voters. He didn’t win it by nearly enough to offset the ass-kicking he predictably suffered in the sparsely populated agricultural counties to the east and west and south, but even a slight edge here should offer encouragement to discouraged Democrats. In a regular election year Wichita’s a reliably Republican city, certainly more so than your usual top-50 American metro area, but pretty much every single ethnic minority and homosexual and college professor and beatnik poet and dues-paying union member and every other statistically-inclined-to-vote-Democrat sort of individual in the district lives here, and as the pundits say it “looks like America” more than the rest of the district, for better and worse. The city’s ethnic make-up and levels of educational achievement and annual income and television viewing habits and consumers preferences are so close to all the national averages that it’s a popular test market, which oddly puts our unfashionable hometown on the cutting edge of commerce, so even in a special election even a slight Democratic win here is something both parties should ponder.
The Democrats should consider finding candidates who shoot guns and act like regular guys and take care not to give offense to the God-fearing white folks when they’re out shaking hands at greasy spoons, even as they fire up all the ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors in the base, but they’ll probably go full Bernie Sanders. The local Republicans should remember that just four months ago they easily won Wichita and a whole lot of those ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors and dues-paying union members with such as a well-credentialed and polished and uninvolved in the Republican civil war candidate as Pompeo, but they’ll probably conclude that even in a special election beset by the worst complications they can still win by a nearly seven point margin no matter who they put up, and of course Trump will conclude that he saved the day.
We got some free eats at both the Estes party at the Marriott Hotel way over the east side as well as the Thompson party at an old joint just up from The Lord’s Diner on North Broadway, and it was interesting to note how both parties were pretty much exactly as you might stereotype them, and how both were rather ambivalent about the results, but we can’t say we learned anything. Come to think of it, we do’t suggest either party try to draw any conclusions except that nobody seems very happy here in the demographically representative heart of America, and they both need to do better.

— Bud Norman

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