Sanders-backed Democrat nearly flips Trump district in Kansas
Democratic challenger James Thompson with volunteers at his campaign office. | James Thompson for Congress

WICHITA, Kan. — Republicans survived an election scare on Tuesday and won a Kansas House seat in the first congressional election since President Donald Trump’s victory, but the margin was much closer than expected in a district that had voted overwhelmingly for Trump in November.

Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes, 60, will represent the Kansas 4th congressional district, replacing Mike Pompeo, whom Trump has named as CIA director.

Democratic challenger James Thompson said, “Estes himself couldn’t defeat me. It took literally the president, vice president, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), and the national party to come in.”

In a sign of nervousness in the waning days of the campaign, Republicans poured money into the race to bolster Estes. Republicans pulled in Cruz to campaign in Wichita for Estes, and both Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump recorded robocalls for him.

“Republicans nationally should be very worried,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. “It’s remarkable that Thompson got this close.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders congratulated Thompson on Wednesday for running a strong campaign. “Nobody likes to lose a close election but, in a congressional district that Donald Trump won by 27 points last fall,” the democratic socialist said, “James lost by just seven points last night. That’s an incredibly impressive showing.”

The Kansas result also reflected blowback against the state’s unpopular Republican governor, Sam Brownback. Thompson tapped into voter frustration after Brownback made Kansas a laboratory for sweeping tax cuts that left the state short of revenue and facing a budget crisis. Brownback also refused to expand the Medicaid health program for the poor.

Republicans have represented the south-central Kansas district since 1994. The district has been hurt by the downturn in the agricultural economy and the loss of hundreds of well-paying, blue-collar jobs in aircraft manufacturing plants. The 17-county congressional district includes the state’s largest city of Wichita, home to Koch Industries, the company led by conservative billionaire political donors Charles and David Koch.

Estes handily won the district’s rural counties. But Thompson won in Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita. Trump had carried Sedgwick county by more than 18 percentage points in November.

Thompson, 46, a political newcomer backed by a group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, said late Tuesday that he will run for the seat again in 2018.

“We came a lot closer than everyone thought we were going to be at the beginning of the race, because from the very beginning people wrote us off as having absolutely no shot,” Thompson’s spokesman Chris Pumpelly said.

Thompson said, “Everybody’s got to remember, we did all of this in 60 days. Having 18 months to do it, I think that we’ll flip the seat.”

The Kansas election was the first of four special elections to fill seats in the House of Representatives – where Republicans now hold a 237-193 majority –  to replace Republicans who took top jobs in the Trump administration. Others are in Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina.

Both parties will now turn their attention to Georgia and the extremely competitive April 18 contest to replace Tom Price, who resigned to serve as Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary.

Democratic hopes rest with Jon Ossoff, 30, a former congressional staffer turned investigative filmmaker who has raised more than $8 million, an extraordinary amount for a special election. Ossoff is counting on opposition to Trump to propel him to a decisive victory.

Speaking to ThinkProgress Wednesday morning, Thompson said, “In 2018 when there’s 435 races going on, Trump is not going to be able to come in and help out. I think that those congressmen and senators need to be looking at their positions on things, because there’s going to be backlash and there’s going to be people who lose their seats in 2018 as a result of it.

“I just don’t want the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] to write off red states just because they looked at some poll from last year’s race where somebody won by 30 points. They need to be looking at the candidates and they need to be looking at the issues.

“Every race is going to be a combination of local and national issues and I think on the national stage, these races are going to be indicative. I think we sent a clear message yesterday that no race is safe.”

Associated Press writers Roxana Hegeman and John Hanna and Think Progress writer Kira Lerner are responsible for most of this article. Barbara Russum also contributed.