Does Kansas Special Election Signal Trouble for GOP?

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Does Kansas Special Election Signal Trouble for GOP?
Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP
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Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, speculation has abounded as to whether his unpopularity could drag down the Republican House majority in 2018.  We’ve seen massive protests in liberal enclaves, but we haven’t had a whole lot of evidence as to whether that energy will translate to votes in red areas of the country.

We’ll get our first tests of this theory in a series of special elections to be held over the next few months.  These elections are being held in districts that range from light red to deeply red, so a loss here – or even a series of unusually tight races – would be consistent with the narrative that the GOP majority is in trouble.

The first election is being held Tuesday in Kansas’ Wichita-based 4th District. This district is historically Republican, having sent only Republicans to Congress from 1936 through the 1976 elections.  That year, a little-known president of the Wichita School Board, Dan Glickman, defeated veteran incumbent Garner Shriver.  There were three keys to Glickman’s success: anti-Washington sentiment, Glickman’s moderation, and an upswing in Democratic voting in rural areas of the district in support of Southerner Jimmy Carter.

Glickman charted a moderate course in Washington, and was re-elected with over 60 percent of the vote until 1992, when he faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from a conservative Republican.  In 1994, he was upended by novice politician Todd Tiahrt, who capitalized on Glickman’s votes for gun control and his pro-choice stance; Tiahrt’s supporters sang “What a Mighty God We Serve” at his victory party.

Tiahrt served until 2010, when he opted to run for Senate.  His seat was won by another political outsider, Mike Pompeo.  Pompeo, of course, was tapped by Trump to lead the CIA, setting up an empty seat and special election.

On paper, there isn’t much in this district for Democrats to like.  Outside of Sedgwick County (Wichita) lies a sea of largely undifferentiated red; the district avoids even pockets of blue found in places like Hutchinson and Dodge City. Wichita is home to Koch Industries; its employees gave tens of thousands of dollars to support Pompeo.  Mitt Romney won the district with 62 percent to 36 percent for President Obama, while Trump won it, 60 percent to 33 percent, over Hillary Clinton.

Yet there are reasons for Democrats to be hopeful that they can at least beat the spread here.  First, Wichita itself has real Democratic strength.  Although the city’s mayors tend to be Republican, an African-American Democrat held the spot from 2007 to 2015.

Second, there is Donald Trump.  Trump won the district by about 14 percentage points more than his national showing in 2016.  If we base his job approval off of that – e.g., if we add 14 points to a national job approval of around 40 percent – that would put him at about 54 percent in the district.  That’s high enough that the Republican candidate should win, but low enough that Republicans should be nervous.

Third, there is Kansas politics.  Kansas has a de facto three-party system, with Democrats squaring off against Republicans in the progressive tradition as well as movement conservatives.  The governor, Sam Brownback, is the first movement conservative governor in quite some time. Bill Graves, the previous Republican governor (1995-2003), was pro-choice, while Mike Hayden (who held the office from 1987-91) lost largely after pushing through a tax increase.

Brownback has seen his popularity plummet in the state, so the fact that one of his Cabinet members, Treasury Secretary Ron Estes, is the Republican nominee for Pompeo’s seat is not a great sign.  This is compounded by the fact that Estes (at left in photo) has, by all accounts, run a lackluster campaign; his ads have been uninspiring and he’s nearly been matched in fundraising by his opponent, James Thompson (at right). The Democratic nominee is an attorney and political novice, which could be an asset in this political environment.

Of course, we have heard this song-and-dance before.  In 2014, many observers and pollsters found that Brownback and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts were in the fights of their lives, only to have Brownback win by four points and Roberts win by 10 (Brownback carried every county in the 4th District).  District partisanship has a way of asserting itself at the end.  Yet the National Republican Congressional Committee is concerned enough that it has parachuted in, and Vice President Mike Pence has cut a robo-call phone message here.  There is more than a little bit of smoke.

As a final thought, if Thompson wins, or even makes it a close race, it would be evidence that the Democratic enthusiasm that we saw in blue areas of the country might be present in other areas too, and that Republicans should start sweating 2018. 

At the same time, it would not be proof, and I would urge caution against over-interpreting the results.  Special elections in 2004 saw Democrats win deep-red seats such as South Dakota’s At-Large seat and Kentucky’s 6th District, yet the general elections were a disappointment for the party (to say the least).  For that matter, if Republicans do well, Democrats shouldn’t panic either; Republicans faced two dispiriting special election losses in New York and one in Pennsylvania before their 2010 landslide wins. 

However, if we see Republicans pressed hard in all four of these races (or coasting in them), we start to have enough datapoints to draw better conclusions.  In other words, we’ll know a lot more in June.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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