The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If the Kansas shift happened nationally, Democrats would have a stranglehold on the House

Republican Ron Estes won a competitive congressional race in Kansas, marking the first special election of the year for a House seat vacated by a Republican. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s enthusiastic tweet about the results of the special election in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District on Tuesday — a “great win” that was accomplished “easily” — ignored the reality of the situation. In a district that now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo won by more than 30 points last year and which Trump himself won by 27 points, the Republican winner, Ron Estes, was victorious by less than seven percentage points.

That’s a significant shift, that can be attributed to a lot of factors. But with other special elections looming, it’s worth reinforcing how dramatically bad such a shift would be for Republicans nationally. If, for example, that shift from Pompeo’s vote were applied to the 2016 House election results, the national map would move from a sea of dark red to something more like this:

The math here isn’t complicated. The 2016 House results were distributed like this, according to data from the Associated Press. (In a number of districts, candidates ran unopposed; they’re marked in lighter color.)

That gives us the current Republican majority in the House.

If we were to shift the margin in each of those contested races in favor of the Democrats by the 25.2-point margin by which Pompeo outperformed Estes, the House suddenly becomes very, very Democratic.

(We left the uncontested contests unchanged, for obvious reasons.)

Of course, Pompeo was an incumbent, so we would expect him to do better than a less well-known Republican. We do have data on a political neophyte’s performance in that district recently, though: Donald Trump. According to the Daily Kos’ breakdown of the 2016 presidential results by congressional district, Pompeo did several percentage points better than Trump. (Trump did worse than the Republican candidate in nearly two-thirds of the 435 House districts. In 214 districts with Republican incumbents, Trump outperformed the incumbent in only 27, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten.)

It’s tricky to extrapolate outward from Trump’s margins in each district to House results, since Trump won some congressional districts that were held by Democrats. If we simply treat the presidential results as eliminating Pompeo’s incumbency, and assume that a non-Pompeo would have done about as well as Trump — certainly not a perfectly fair assumption — then we’d expect Estes to have done about 20.4 points better than he did.

If we apply that shift to the House results? A smaller Democratic dominance.

This thought experiment will not come to fruition for a variety of reasons: Special elections are weird things, and individual races are colored by a lot of things beyond national temperament. (The race in Kansas was also affected by complex politics at the state level.) Whether or not this holds nationally will be tested next week in Georgia’s 6th District, where there’s another special election. It’s safe to assume that the margins will be less dramatic.

But a sharp shift to the left in even deep-red parts of the country has obvious implications for the GOP that this experiment simply lays bare: the potential for a electoral disaster.

Which, in a nutshell, is why the victory in Kansas was not, for Republicans, “great.”