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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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Something Special in South-Central Kansas

President Donald Trump called our newfangled cellular telephone on Monday afternoon while Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz was speaking to us on a personal visit, which was also attended by reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times and a strikingly sultry young hipster woman representing Buzzfeed.com, and that came the day after Vice President Mike Pence called us, so at the moment we’re feeling rather special here in the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas. It’s all because of today’s special election to select a replacement for the locally well-regarded Rep. Mike Pompeo, who resigned his seat to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the surprisingly plausible possibility that an upset of national interest might be brewing.
Ordinarily the congressional elections here in our part of the very heart of flyover country are dull affairs, with the only suspense for the last couple of decades being whether the Republican would win by a two-to-one rout or some embarrassing low-double-digits margin, but this time around there’s an extraordinary collision of circumstances. The Republican National Committee is worried enough that it threw $92,000 into a last minute ad blitz, which will buy a big chunk of air time in this cut-rate media market, and they pestered both Trump and Pence to record the robocalls that have been reaching all the Republican phones around here, and convinced Cruz to fly into town for a rally at a local corporate aviation airport hangar. The Kansas Democratic Committee reportedly declined to spend a requested $20,000 for counter-advertising, probably because they don’t have it on hand, but the editors at The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com apparently sense enough Republican nervousness that they invested their meager travel budgets in a plane ticket and hotel and restaurant bill and other expenses in far-off Wichita. Knowing this corner of the prairie better than any of those Republican politicos or Democratic media bigwigs, there are a few reasons we think it at least slightly possible they might be on to something.
Just a few months ago Pompeo won yet another re-election with something close to that two-to-one score, but this time around the Republican candidate is Ron Estes, and Estes is no Pompeo. The current director of the CIA first won the Fourth Congressional seat back in ’10, when he replaced the reliably conservative but utterly forgettable Reublican Todd Tiahrt, who had resigned the seat to make an ill-fated run primary run for the Senate, and wiped the floor with a Harvard-educated Hindu that the Democrats had chosen just after President Barack Obama’s ’08 win convinced them that foreign names and Ivy League credentials were a winning combination even in Kansas. Pompeo had been first in his class at West Point and the commander of a tank unit on the Iron Curtain, an editor of the Harvard Law Review, the founder of a successful high-tech aviation business, could eloquently articulate the principles of conservatism to the formidable number of establishment Republicans around here and still connect with the more rough-hewn but also formidable Republican types, and he was too darned reasonable to scare even the most skittish liberal. Democrats were losing their entire House majority in all sorts of districts because of Obama at that point, and Pompeo thus easily won election over that smartypants Democrat. After that the Democrats ran a series of sacrificial lambs who revved up the base but didn’t have any potential political careers worth wasting, and suffice to say there weren’t any reporters from The Washington Post or New York Times at the three subsequent nearly two-to-one victory parties. Pompeo was a rising star in the Republican ranks before his elevation to the CIA post once held by President George H.W. Bush, and we dare say you haven’t heard the last of him.
Estes, on the other hand, is a recent State Treasurer of Kansas, which is not an enviable job in these years of annual budget shortfalls, and that’s pretty much all you’d know about him from his well-funded but utterly inept campaign, except that he’s a reliably conservative and otherwise entirely forgettable Republican. He’s declined to articulate his conservatism at any of the public debates that various groups tried to schedule, so Estes is mainly defined by the godawful ads that constantly run on the local talk radio and evening news broadcasts. One features him interacting in soft focus with stereotypical workaday Kansans while a pastel Kansas sunset sinks in the background, with his belly as prominently displayed as any of them, another shows him standing waist-deep in a sickly green swamp full of alligators and promising to drain it, and most of them are attack ads showing his Democratic opponent photo-shopped next to a very scary image of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The ridiculous and much-ridiculed image of Estes standing waste-deep in that sickly green water is presumably meant to link him to his robocalling friend Trump and his famous campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” but Trump finished in a distant third in the Kansas caucus and was roundly booed when he appeared here during the event, and he only won the state’s electoral votes because he was running against Hillary Clinton, and almost no one around here believes that Trumpism is the solution to official corruption. Cruz was the big winner of the Kansas caucus, but he only drew 250 or so to the airport rally on Monday, and his speech focused on Supreme Court nominees that the House doesn’t get to vote on and the much-hated Obamacare bill that Trump failed to repeal in his first attempt largely because of conservative hard-liners such as himself, and he threw in some jokes so old the audience was chanting along with the punchlines, and he got a bigger response by noting Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer than he did during the single mention of Donald Trump, although Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch got a deservedly nice hand. The behind-schedule rally also included speeches by a black Republican and two clean-cut College Republicans and the heads of the Kansas For Life and the Kansas Rifle Association, as well as a forgettable few minutes by Estes himself, but it had the same desultory feel of the rest of the campaign. Those endlessly televised photos of Minority Leader Pelosi are still pretty terrifying, but unlikely to scare Republicans off the couch and off to the polling place the way she did when was she was swinging the gavel as Speaker of the House during a Democratic administration, and there so little connection between Pelosi and the Democratic opponent that it had to be photoshopped. The Democratic opponent has a pretty Kansas-sized belly and photogenic Kansas sunsets in the background, too, and he’s brought in enough small donations from an energized Democratic party to make them pop up on pretty much every internet site a Kansan might visit.
The Democratic opponent is attorney James Thompson, and although he’s a political neophyte he’s not one of those sacrificial lambs that the party has usually offered up. His carefully-crafted ads tell a heartrending story of his impoverished and briefly homeless youth, how he found his way in the world by volunteering for wartime military service, parlayed that into an education and a law degree and a legal career that hasn’t yet yielded any scandals, and feature footage of his burly and hirsute Kansas self shooting a semi-automatic rifle on a rural range and not saying anything at all about the likes of Nancy Pelosi. With help from a a lot of small donors he’s been been able to widely air those ads even on the conservative talk radio shows, and you can’t go anywhere on the internet in this district without them popping up at some site or another. We even got a text message on our newfangled cellular phone that was intended for someone named “Latisha” to remind her to vote for Thompson at polling place over on the northeast side, and we’re old and white male and Republican and familiar with Wichita enough to jump to the conclusion that “Latisha” is a young and black and Democratic woman, which suggests Thompson’s got some sophisticated if hardly fool-proof get-out-the-vote techniques going for him. He’s also done the door-to-door and greasy spoon meet-and-greets and and shown up at all the debates to argue with the Libertarian candidate who’s bound to siphon a few votes away from the Republicans, staked out positions that won’t diminish the enthusiasm of the revved-up minority of local Democrats but don’t unnecessarily provoke any Republicans, and so spooked the state and national Republicans that they’re spending relatively big bucks and getting Trump and Pence and Kansas Caucus winner Cruz involved.
There’s also the fact that Estes is so inextricably linked with Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback that it doesn’t require photoshopping, and Brownback is currently the 50th most popular governor in America according to all the polls, having enraged all the Democrats with his tax-and-budget-slushing agenda, as well as the half of the Republican party he waged civil war on to make it happen, and that even such stingy Republicans as ourselves are miffed he’s managed to discredit our tax-and-budget-cutting principles. You can also throw in the fact that this is one of those April elections where turnout is bound to be low, and at this point the Democratic minority of Kansas is hell-bent for some sort of victory and and clearly winning the yard-sign war even outside our anomalously liberal neighborhood, the Republican majority is either complacent or dispirited or blissfully unaware that we’re holding an election in April of all months, and we can see why the likes of The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com are taking a bet on this election. Should the Republican prevail in this reliably Republican district it will be another dog-bites-man story relegated to a couple of inches on page B-3, with the plane tickets and hotel and restaurant expenses of a trip to Wichita written off, but if the upset does occur it can be spun into a rebuke of Republicans in general and Trump in particular right in the deep-red heart of the flyover country that’s worth space on the front page, so they might as well roll the dice.
The guys who write The Washington Post’s all-knowing “Plum Line” column and don’t have to fly to places like Wichita say that “it would take an earthquake” for the Democrat to prevail here, and we’re inclined to agree with that assessment, and after a lifetime of Fourth Congressional District politics we would advise that’s still  the way to bet, but they might not know that for the past few year we’ve been having earthquakes around here.

— Bud Norman