By Jim Ellis
April 11, 2017 –National Republicans are investing in media and digital ads at the very end of the Kansas special congressional election cycle in order to infuse energy into what has been a lackluster campaign effort from GOP nominee Ron Estes.
The 4th District of Kansas contains 16 south-central Sunflower State counties and a sliver of Pawnee County. Sedgwick County, home to the city of Wichita, is the population anchor (70 percent of the congressional district population resides in this local entity).
Since the 1936 elections, only one Democratic congressional candidate has won here: former Rep. Dan Glickman, first elected in 1976. He would serve nine consecutive terms before falling to defeat in 1994. Republican Todd Tiahrt unseated Rep. Glickman that year, and held the seat for an additional eight terms until departing for an unsuccessful US Senate run. In 2010, businessman Mike Pompeo won a crowded Republican primary to capture the seat. President Trump’s selection of Rep. Pompeo as CIA director opened the district for today’s special election.
This campaign has drawn little attention because the district is solidly Republican. When the Democrats nominated unknown Bernie Sanders campaign activist James Thompson, a Wichita attorney, to oppose state Treasurer Estes, it appeared that both sides were expecting a Republican victory outcome.
The local Democratic convention delegates turned to Thompson over former state Treasurer Dennis McKinney largely because the latter had fared so poorly against Estes in the 2010 election. McKinney, then the sitting incumbent was turned out of the Kansas Treasurer’s office at the hands of Estes, and lost to him by a huge 25-point margin in the 4th District. Therefore, many delegates felt the party would be in stronger position with a fresh face as opposed to a proven loser.
Thompson has been an energetic candidate, but failed to gain major Democratic financial support. Both Estes and Thompson have raised very little money. According to the latest Federal Election Commission report, the Republican nominee obtained just over $312,000 through the March 22 reporting period, and Thompson a touch over $253,000 over the same time period.
The late Republican activity, boosting Estes’ advertising efforts in television and digital communication, and with GOP leaders such as Vice President Mike Pence and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz taking action to support their candidate, suggests that the party leadership is worried about a poor Republican turnout for today’s election. Realistically, an abnormally small GOP participation factor is the only way Estes will lose the race.
Since the 2000 presidential election, the 4th District has voted consecutively for the Republican nominee with percentages of 59 (Bush, ’00), 64 (Bush, ’04), 58 (McCain, ’08), 62 (Romney, ’12), and 60 percent (Trump ’16). The Democratic nominees only scored as high as 40 percent once during those presidential elections, and that was then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008. Rep. Tiahrt averaged 58.6 percent in his eight congressional elections. Rep. Pompeo scored an average vote of 62.1 percent during his four victories, providing further evidence that the district is moving to the political right.
KS-4 has 400,128 voters according to the latest available voter registration figures. The Republican registration is 44.6 percent as compared to just 24.0 percent for Democrats. The remainder are unaffiliated or qualified members of the Libertarian Party.
Estes remains the favorite to win and hold the seat for the GOP, but the turnout level from both parties will be of great interest. Whether the participation factor proves a precursor for the subsequent congressional special elections in Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina remains to be seen.