Kansas special election may be closer than it should be



It's been 22 years since a Democrat last represented Kansas' 4th congressional district, which is dominated by wheat fields and airplane factories around metropolitan Wichita.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, the district's last congressman who resigned his seat in January to become President Donald Trump's CIA Director, won 61 percent of the vote against his Democratic challenger in November. Two years before that, he managed 67 percent. There's not much swing in this seat.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Mike Pompeo (L) is sworn in as CIA Director by Vice President Mike Pence (R) as wife Susan Pompeo (2nd L) looks on at Eisenhower Executive Office Building January 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Pompeo was confirmed for the position by the Senate this evening.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., right, chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center, June 28, 2016, to announce the Committee's report on the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed four Americans. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., also appears. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director nominee for President-elect Donald Trump, swears in to a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Pompeo is seeking to reassure senators that he can shift from an outspoken policymaker to an objective spy chief if confirmed.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) arrives to testify before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination of to be become director of the CIA at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) finishes swearing in Mike Pompeo, flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo, to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the vice president's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mike Pompeo gets a hug from supporter Jennifer O'Connor after arriving at the Sedgwick County Republican headquarters at Market Centre in Wichita, Kansas, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

(Fernando Salazar/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images)

Adam Schiff (D-CA) left, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) center, and moderator Chuck Todd, right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.

(William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for the director of the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) attends his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) listens as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) speaks during his confirmation hearing to be the director of the CIA before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., speaks during the news conference before a group of House Republican freshmen walked to the Senate to deliver a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. The letter called on the Senate to pass a long term continuing resolution with spending cuts.

(Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

US Congressman Mike Pompeo (C), R-Kansas, sits in the dark after a power failure with US Senator Pat Roberts (L), a former Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former US Senator Bob Dole (R), R-Kansas, as he prepares to testify before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 12, 2017, on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Trump administration.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., center, nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is introduced by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., right, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., during Pompeo's Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building, January 12, 2017. The hearing was moved from Hart Building due to a peer outage.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Incoming Trump administration cabinet secretary nominees including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson (L-R), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director nominee Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis arrive for meetings at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mike Pompeo (2nd L), flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo (2nd R) and their son Nick Pompeo (R), signs his affidavit of appointment after being sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) in Pence's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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And yet in the shade of a largely overlooked early spring special election, something of a race has unexpectedly come to boil in the heartland. Pompeo's replacement isn't the slam dunk for the GOP that he should be -- and there's open worry about a surprise on Tuesday night.

"I think it's probably going to be closer than expected," says Todd Tiahrt, the former Republican congressman who held the seat prior to Pompeo. "I think you're seeing the Democratic Party more motivated than Republicans. The average guy in the street that's a registered Republican hasn't really engaged in this race."

State Treasurer Ron Estes, the Republican candidate, is neither offensive nor memorable. In interviews and speeches, he pledges to follow in the footsteps of Pompeo, practice conservatism and "make sure that we change Washington" -- boilerplate fare for red terrain such as this.

His Democratic opponent, James Thompson, is bringing more gusto to the campaign, in part because he has to. A civil rights attorney and Army veteran, Thompson is presenting himself as a nonpartisan candidate in perpetual motion, hitting every diner, saloon and Facebook live chat that offers up a potential vote.

He essentially needs a perfect storm of conjoining events to pull off what would amount to an earth-shattering upset: Low turnout among apathetic Republicans, a determined Democratic base teeming to send a message and an early banked vote that catches everyone off guard.

And even then, it might not be enough.

Late in the game, the cavalry came in for Estes. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas flew into the district Monday to raise the stakes. "Today, the eyes of the whole country are on Kansas," he said. "Our enemy right now is complacency." Vice President Mike Pence recorded robocalls that hit voters' phones over the weekend; they were buttressed by a "big league" pitch from Trump himself, who said "Estes needs your vote and needs it badly" in a separate phone pitch. The mere fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee was forced to spend a dime on Estes, let alone pour tens of thousands of dollars into television advertising, demonstrates that Thompson's insurgency is real.

It's almost as if Republicans themselves circulated word of an internal poll showing a 1-point race last week as a bright warning flare.

Because of all this, the Kansas special election has become a game of expectations. If Thompson pulls off the upset, it will immediately ignite a national story that will reverberate all the way through next week's other competitive special election in Georgia, where there's a battle for the 6th congressional district seat vacated by Trump's newly appointed Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price.

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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price (L) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney (r) speak to reporters after the Congressional Budget Office released its score on proposed Republican health care legislation at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (C) and Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini (R) listen to U.S. President Donald Trump speak during a meeting with health insurance company CEOs at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) testifies before a Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price (C) meet with representatives of conservative political groups, including American Conservative Union Chairman Matthew Schlapp (R), to discuss their plans for repealing and replacing ObamaCare in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Rep. Tom Price gets into an elevator at Trump Tower, November 16, 2016 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet positions for the new administration.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (C) and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price (R) attend a cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) hands the pen to Representative Tom Price (R-GA) after signing a bill repealing Obamacare at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 7, 2016. The U.S. Congress on Wednesday approved legislation dismantling President Barack Obama's signature health care plan, putting on his desk an election-year measure that faces a certain veto.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Chairman of the House Budget Committee Tom Price (R-GA) announces the House Budget during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 17, 2015.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (L) takes to the podium to address the daily press briefing as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (R) steps aside at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Rep. Tom Price arrives at Trump Tower, November 16, 2016 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet positions for the new administration.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) (L) is welcomed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) prior to testifying before a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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But even if Thompson falls short in Kansas -- by a single-digit margin -- a respectable loss will be interpreted as a rebuke of the Republican Party.

National Democrats will rush to say it is an explicit negative reaction to Trump, a first sign of electoral regret. But the story of Kansas' sleepy 4th congressional district special election may be more about parochial politics.

The president carried this district by a 27-point margin over Hillary Clinton. Thompson has largely avoided Trump as an issue, preferring to raise the stifling unpopularity of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, whose deeply conservative agenda has alienated and emboldened a rising moderate electorate in the state.

"I don't think you could peg it on Trump, because Trump won the state of Kansas," Tiahrt says. "The economy is not really doing well in the state, and there's a lot of blame on the governor. It's more local."

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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