In the first congressional election of Donald Trump’s presidency, Republicans have held on to a deeply red Kansas district after a closer than expected race for the GOP.
Ron Estes, the state treasurer, defeated Democratic lawyer James Thompson 53 to 46 percent in Kansas’ 4th District, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, The Associated Press reported.
But with several more special elections around the corner, Estes’ underperformance of Trump’s victory margin last fall in this traditionally safe GOP district will likely be the subject of more scrutiny than the fact that the Republican won.
Trump carried the district by 27 points in November, with then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, now director of the CIA, winning re-election by 31 points.
Estes’ much narrower margin represents a shift in the district toward the Democrats, who will be eager to point to the results as a referendum on two unpopular Republican chief executives: Trump and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
Trump tweeted about the results Wednesday morning, congratulating Estes for “easily winning” a race in which Democrats “spent heavily and predicted victory.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee barely spent anything on the race and never predicted victory.
Special election turnout is almost always lower and more unpredictable. But Republicans knew they had a problem in the last several days when an internal poll put them ahead by just single digits in the ruby red district.
The party called in last-minute reinforcements. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence recorded robocalls for Estes; House Speaker Paul D. Ryan sent a fundraising pitch. And in one of the stranger displays of party unity, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz headlined a Monday afternoon rally in Wichita, where a representative from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also made an appearance.
The National Republican Congressional Committee made a $92,000 investment in TV and digital ads last week, while the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, made their own five-figure investment in robocalls.
National Democrats, meanwhile, largely stayed out of the race, save for last-minute get-out-the-vote calls that began on Monday. The national party was too preoccupied with next week’s more competitive special election in Georgia, Thompson lamented to The New York Times.
“We knew from the beginning that it was going to be hard to get national attention, but we knew that we had a chance,” he said.
National Democrats have argued that their staying away allowed Thompson to fly under the radar and avoid stronger firepower from Republicans eager to tie him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Thompson, meanwhile, tried to tie Estes to Brownback. His campaign even superimposed Brownback’s face on an alligator on a still image of Estes’ heavily mocked “Drain the Swamp” ad.
In the ad, Estes stands in a swamp with a campaign bumper sticker slapped on his chest and tries to echo some of Trump’s rhetoric. But the two-term state treasurer is more of an establishment candidate. He defeated a former Trump campaign staffer at a special nominating convention to become the district GOP nominee.
But because Estes didn’t face a primary, he wasn’t necessarily the pick of the majority of Republican voters in the district. He was selected at the nominating convention by winning the votes of just 66 out of 126 district delegates on the final ballot.