After putting a scare into national Republicans, Kansas state Treasurer Ron Estes squeaked by with a victory in Tuesday night’s special election to replace former Rep. Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s CIA director.
Estes was beating Democratic lawyer James Thompson, 52 percent to 46 percent, with 88 percent of the vote in when The Associated Press called the race.
It was never supposed to be that close, spooking Republicans who are bracing for potential down-ballot blowback to come in the Trump era of Republican government. As recently as this past weekend, Estes had been polling within just a point of Thompson, two Republican operatives familiar with the data said.
The 4th District, a wide swath of south-central Kansas, has been reliably red for more than two decades. Pompeo won it with more than 60 percent of the vote in the past three elections after first winning it with 59 percent in 2010. Trump won it by 27 points in 2016, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won it by nearly 26 points in 2012.
National Republicans mobilized last week to try to prop up Estes and avert a disaster. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz joined Estes on the campaign trail on Monday to help get out the vote among the Republican base, coupled with the release of a robocall taped by Trump himself. In the final days of the race, the House GOP’s campaign arm spent on digital and television ads, some of which hit Thompson on abortion.
While Trump is the most high-profile Republican in the country, Thompson — a veteran and a lawyer with hardly any political experience — framed the race as a referendum on Sam Brownback, the state’s Republican governor. Brownback, who has divided the state GOP with his stance on budget-crippling tax cuts and his entrenched opposition to expanding Medicaid, is one of America’s least popular governors, according to Morning Consult’s Governor Approval Rankings.
The Kansas race is the first in a series of special elections that could serve as bellwethers for the Republican Party’s electoral outlook heading into 2018. Other contests are set in the coming weeks in Georgia and Montana that could prove even tougher for the GOP to hold.