Five takeaways from Kansas's special election

Five takeaways from Kansas's special election
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Republicans managed to hang on to a Kansas House seat in a special election Tuesday, but the surprisingly competitive race in deep-red Kansas still holds significant implications for both parties as they fight for control of the House.

President Trump carried Kansas’s 4th Congressional District easily in 2016, winning by 27 points. But Republican candidate Ron Estates failed to achieve anywhere near that success, beating Democratic nominee James Thompson by a little less than 7 points.

Here are five takeaways from the Kansas special election as partisans look for lessons from the first major race of the Trump administration.  

Democratic enthusiasm is real

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Democrats are trying to see the silver lining in Tuesday’s election loss, while the GOP is playing up the victory. But both sides agree on one thing: Tuesday’s election showed serious Democratic enthusiasm. 

“These special elections are really centered on the base voters showing up to the polls. ... Democrats have an enthusiasm advantage right now on their side,” one House GOP strategist told The Hill. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) agreed, declaring in a post-election statement that the “results should set off alarm bells for House Republicans.” 

The Kansas district lies in the heart of 2016 Trump country. Trump won there and even improved on GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s 25-point margin from 2012. 

But Thompson appeared to cut into that advantage significantly, leaving Democrats nationwide celebrating.

“Democrats need to understand that a much broader array of seats, potentially deep in Republican territory, could be in play next year,” said David Nir, the political director for liberal blog Daily Kos. 

Local issues matter

Democrats want to see the close race as proof that Trump’s young administration could inspire a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms.  

“The Kansas outcome should be pretty scary for Republicans who are looking at 2018. That should have been a slam dunk for them, but I think it shows how weak Trump is,” a former aide to the DCCC told The Hill.  

Every message coming out of the Democratic Party has cast the strong Democratic showing as proof that Trump hurts down-ballot Republicans.

That could be true. But there are other forces unique to the Kansas race that make its message less clear. 

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) receives exceptionally low marks from his constituents, even many Republicans. Polling from Morning Consult has long pegged him as the least popular governor in America until this week, when he improved to second-most unpopular, ahead of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).  

One of the main sources of angst is over the state’s troubled budget, an issue that could hurt Estes, currently the state treasurer. But Brownback’s low favorable numbers haven’t fueled a Democratic resurgence in other races.  

“Estes has a lot of problems in the state to predict what the ‘Trump effect’ might be,” said Jeff Blehar, an election analyst with Decision Desk HQ.

Progressives want more party investment in tough races

After Thompson fell short Tuesday night, progressive activists accused the DCCC of blowing the race.

While though the race wasn’t seen as competitive until its final stretch, Republicans backed Estes with last-minute cash. The Democratic campaign arm, meanwhile, made only a small investment the day before the election.

 But some Democrats have backed the DCCC’s hands-off strategy, arguing that the decision to not nationalize the race made it harder for Republicans to tie Thompson to Washington Democrats. And the DCCC would have been hard-pressed to make up the 7 points needed to put the Democrat over the top.

Still, the decision has angered many Democrats who point to the aggressive fundraising efforts by outside progressive groups, including $160,000 raised by Daily Kos readers. Thompson’s impressive showing leaves his backers to wonder what the race could have looked like if it had more backing from the national party. 

Trump matters to both parties

Opposition to Trump seems to be driving significant Democratic enthusiasm, but it’s less clear how the president affects Republican voters.  

His approval rating floats at a historic low for a new president, at about 42 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls. But Trump’s approval was even worse in the run-up to Election Day, and he still won.  

Republicans credit Trump with bringing new voters into the fold, but no one knows yet whether they will show up when he isn’t on the ballot. GOP voters could also be suffering from what the House GOP strategist described as “hangover” from 2016’s victories, while the Democrats are ready to go.   

“Complacency is something Republicans really need to fear. They have control of the House, Senate and presidency. Their voters have everything they could want [and] are not motivated in a way that Democrats are motivated,” Blehar said. 

All eyes are on Georgia

The result has raised the stakes even higher for Georgia’s closely watched special election in its 6th Congressional District, where more than a dozen candidates are looking to fill the seat left open by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. 

Democrat Jon Ossoff is trying to break 50 percent of the vote in the crowded field. But if he fails to take a majority in the April 18 vote, he will head to a runoff with his closest rival, which could doom his chances.

An outright victory in the Atlanta-area district, which Trump barely won in 2016, would go far for Democrats looking to prove that the party is gaining momentum — and potentially help scare some Republican lawmakers into retirement ahead of the midterms. 

“Narratives are important. [If Ossoff wins,] the national narrative is irresistible,” Blehar said. 

“If there’s a second data point you can draw a line through, there will be a tsunami of coverage.” 

That works both ways, though. A Democratic stumble in the Georgia race, which has drawn significant press coverage and national party investment, could stunt that momentum and give Republicans a win that reverberates far beyond Georgia.