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Four big lessons from Kansas’s special election

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)

No sugarcoating: For an hour or so last night, after largely ignoring the race for Kansas's 4th Congressional District, Democrats across the country thought they might win it. James Thompson, the first-time candidate who out-hustled GOP state treasurer Ron Estes, came closer than any Democrat had in 21 years to flipping a seat that's about as reliably Republican as the state of Mississippi.

Thompson lost, but in exactly the way that's going to stoke hurt feelings among Democrats and worries inside the GOP. Estes won with 63,505 votes, and Thompson lost with 55,310 votes. One way to look at this is that Estes won just 38 percent as many votes as then-Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) last year, and Thompson won 68 percent as many votes as the Democrat who lost to him. In most congressional districts, that sort of turnout gap would have carried the Democrat to victory.

But it didn't, so what did we learn?

The GOP machine is battered but efficient

It was deja vu for Democrats. On Nov. 8, they woke to good news from early voting, only to see Republicans storm the polls in key states and elect Donald Trump president. In Kansas, voters who went to the polls before April 11 pretty resoundingly voted for Thompson. Republicans, seeing that, scrambled into action with an ad buy, robo-calls from the president and a last-minute rally headlined by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and the Chamber of Commerce.

The result: Strong Election Day turnout that both Republican and Democratic models picked up. (Midday Tuesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee saw the race breaking for Estes by seven points, which it did.) Republicans patted themselves on the back for spotting danger just in time and mobilizing to bail out their candidate. On Monday, as I monitored TV in Wichita, it was impossible to miss the ads branding Thompson a “D.C. liberal,” and the only political story on the news was about how Republicans were moving to win the seat — free media that turned out votes.

There was more local coverage of the president's robo-call than of Thompson's final campaign stops. Thompson and a grass-roots team out-campaigned Estes, but there were simply more Republican voters for the winner to push out on Tuesday. Despite the chaos in the White House, the president's party remains nimble and well funded.

Democrats can't get cute about campaign spending. People notice.

On Tuesday night, as soon as it became clear that voting would push Estes past Thompson, the knives came out for the Democratic National Committee and DCCC. Why had these committees, which were reporting higher fundraising numbers thanks to the Trump backlash, sat out KS-04 until the final hours? Why had DNC chair Tom Perez, who talked about a "57-state-and-territory strategy,” told The Washington Post (specifically, told me) that the DNC was not putting late money into the Kansas Democratic Party?

Yet there was just as much armchair Twitter strategizing in favor of the DCCC's decision to stay out of the race, as doing so would have “nationalized” the race. There are two problems with that view.

One is that Republicans nationalized the race a week before the vote by slapping Thompson's picture next to one of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The other: While political reporters in Kansas broke story after story about the national campaign moves, local TV did not. It's not clear whether national Democrats would have accidentally roused Republican voters, as the money Thompson needed — and he got, in the end, around $10,000 from state Democrats — was to turn out voters on the margins. Today, more than ever, groups that plunged in early for Thompson (Our Revolution, Democracy for America, Daily Kos) are trumpeting what they did to call voters and send money by contrasting it with how little the official party did.

In rural America, Democrats still have a brand problem

Thompson ran a stronger-than-expected race on populist economic issues, stumping against the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, in favor of Medicaid expansion and against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But he rarely identified himself as a Democrat. His campaign ads called him a “Kansas veteran for Congress” and showed him shooting an AR-15.

Kansas was an ideal place to test the power of that branding. Thanks to sluggish economic growth and budget cuts under Gov. Sam Brownback (R), the GOP had been losing ground in local races. But national Democratic branding remained toxic. No Democrat campaigned in the district for Thompson — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had appeared with him only at a Democratic rally and fundraiser in Topeka, one district over. Ask any Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010 but lost anyway: Nothing you do will prevent Republicans from Photoshopping your face next to Pelosi's.

That's a problem that the party is counting on external forces — such as Trump's growing unpopularity — to solve. But it is, undeniably, a problem when it's enough to sink a Democrat running against a Kansas state government that's supported by fewer than 30 percent of voters. Democrats want rural voters to see the GOP as a threat to their health care and schools, but they aren't there yet.

Social issues still matter

The 11th-hour ad that perhaps did the most to turn out Republicans focused entirely on the issue of abortion. “James Thompson supports late-term abortion,” it said. “He supports abortion even if parents don't like the gender of their baby.”

The sourcing for that claim was a February candidate forum in which Thompson helped seal his nomination over an antiabortion Democratic rival. Thompson did not say he supported sex-selective abortion — he said that Roe v. Wade was the law of the land and that he would probably oppose the Hyde Amendment, which prevented any federal money from going to programs that paid for abortion. The ad, to put it generously, used the transitive property to assume what sort of abortions Thompson was willing to tolerate.

Could Thompson have won had he moderated his abortion stance? We don't know. But in 2008, the party won a string of three special House elections in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi; in the latter two races, they ran antiabortion Democrats who neutralized the abortion issue.

Since then, and after Barack Obama's presidency, the GOP has moved further right on abortion, passing restrictive laws to limit the scope of Roe. The Democratic Party has moved left, putting opposition to the Hyde Amendment in its platform for the first time last year. And there are places where that stance simply won't work.

Put it another way: Republicans have recently had a luckier time winning in deep-blue states than Democrats have had in shallow-red states. What do former senator Scott Brown (R-Mass), Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) have in common? They broke from their national party on abortion and made it difficult (or impossible) for Democrats to brand them as social radicals.

Democrats have their best shot in years at taking over the House of Representatives. But they've never held the House without a substantial number of conservative, antiabortion Democrats. It's very possible that the new Supreme Court will make a decision that curtails abortion rights and changes the politics. But there will be opportunities for gains in places where the GOP is unpopular but voters don't want to vote for left-wing candidates. In Kansas, the GOP was able to overcome lagging support by hammering one of its base's most resonant issues. There will be races in which Democrats try to prevent that by blurring a few issues — and we'll see whether, in 2017, the restive “resistance” goes along with it.