Why Estes' Narrow Win in Kan. Need Not Worry the GOP

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Why Estes' Narrow Win in Kan. Need Not Worry the GOP
Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle via AP
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I wrapped up my preview of the special election in Kansas Tuesday with the following admonition:

“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.”

Not everyone heeded my suggestion.  Jonathan Martin of the New York Times tweeted out late last night “A WARNING SHOT was fired from Kansas toward every R on the '18 ballot: Dems are energized, few districts are safe.”

That . . . is a bit of an overreaction.

To recap, Republican Ron Estes held the seat vacated by new CIA Director Mike Pompeo with 52.5 percent of the vote to 45.7 percent for Democrat James Thompson. I had set some loose mental benchmarks for the race: Less than a 10-point win was cause for concern for Republicans; less than five points was a cause for panic; a loss would mean the end was nigh.  To put this in context, this district is about 15 points more Republican than the country as a whole, so a Republican loss here would be a bit more extreme than a Republican winning a special election for a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

So this is not a great result for Republicans, and it is consistent with a story of Republicans potentially losing the House next year.  But to suggest that “few districts are safe” is an exaggeration. Even in 2010, when Democrats actually lost a Senate seat somewhat less Democratic than this House seat was Republican (but did so by three points), the outcome of the House election was in doubt until the late summer of that year, and Republicans didn’t convert any other seats as Democratic as the Massachusetts one was.  In fact, only a handful of seats with a Democratic lean of more than a few points ended up flipping.

Moreover, it is difficult to extrapolate from special elections in general, because they ultimately represent a single observation.  Even though elections have become nationalized in general, local factors still matter.  To see what I mean, first look at this chart, which illustrates the comparison most people have been focusing on:

The way you read this chart is pretty straightforward: The dots each represent counties (not every county is labeled because the labels would overlap and become unreadable), and the chart overall compares results from the 2016 general election to the 2017 special election.  The diagonal line represents what we would see if the vote shares were exactly the same: If Trump and Estes won the exact same vote share in a county, it would fall directly on the line.

If Estes ran behind Trump in a county, the dot would fall below the line, while if Estes ran ahead of Trump, the dot would appear above it (you could also use “right” and “left,” but that technically isn’t mathematically correct).

So what we see is that Estes pretty consistently ran about nine points behind Trump.  This is what most people are looking at.  The idea is that 2016 was a good election for Republicans, but not great. If Republicans are running about nine points behind Trump these days, then the bottom is in real danger of falling out for them.

This is not a frivolous take – at all – but let’s give the district a different look.  This next chart is the same idea, but it compares Estes’ vote performance in these counties to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ vote share in 2014.

As you can see, Estes ran about equal to Roberts’ vote share in these counties.  Overall, he ran about three points behind Roberts – one of those dots below the line is Sedgwick County (Wichita), which casts an awful lot of votes.  Regardless, 2014 was an exceptionally good GOP year. If Republicans were to run just three points behind their 2014 showing, they’d probably lose just a few seats.

You might object that Roberts was running against an Independent, so he could have performed better against an actual Democrat, who would presumably activate the partisan cues of the district.  We can test that somewhat:

As you can see, Estes overall ran better than Gov. Sam Brownback did in 2014, and Brownback had a Democratic opponent.  So if we use the 2014 elections as our baseline, this district actually looks pretty good for Republicans.

Which one should we use? It’s hard to say! One of the critical features of this election was that the Republican nominee was the state treasurer.  Given Brownback’s widespread unpopularity, and the significant budget hole that could be (perhaps unfairly) attributed to Estes, it isn’t surprising that Thompson ran well. 

Moreover, Thompson didn’t exactly run as a national Democrat.  While he wasn’t a conservative Democrat by any stretch of the imagination, his website emphasized his support for Second Amendment rights, funding law enforcement, and “discourage[ing] illegal [immigration] activity,” alongside support for LGBT rights and steps to combat climate change.  Again, this isn’t to say he is conservative or a “blue dog” Democrat; he isn’t.  It’s just to say he ran to Hillary Clinton’s right, especially on the salient issue of guns.

While we are on the subject of Thompson’s website, notice that his issues page never mentioned Trump.  Brownback’s name, however, appears eight times, three times in bold.  Again, local issues really were an important feature of the race.

If you are really looking for bad news for Republicans, it is probably that, regardless of the comparison, Estes ran behind other Republicans in Sedgwick County.  This could be evidence that urban Democrats were enthused to vote, or it could be evidence that Republican vote shares have continued to decline among college-educated whites.  Neither is particularly good news for the GOP, although the latter is probably worse, since a large number of the competitive districts in 2018 will probably feature large numbers of college-educated white voters.

The big picture, however, is that it is very easy to miss the forest for all of the trees here.  The forest is that midterm elections correlate heavily with presidential approval rating, and Donald Trump’s approval rating is in the low 40s.  If this state of affairs continues, Republicans will likely find themselves in real danger of losing the House. We didn’t need a special election to know that.

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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