As Democrats focus on flipping a conservative Georgia House district next week, the GOP is scrambling to put resources into a special election in a surprising place: deep-red Kansas.
Republicans are suddenly playing defense ahead of Tuesday’s election to fill the seat left vacant by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, hustling last-minute cash and high-profile Republicans into a district President Trump carried by nearly 30 points.
Trump threw himself into the race late Monday, recording a robocall in which the president tells voters that he has "something big to tell you" about: the importance of voting for the GOP's candidate, Ron Estes.
The party wants to ensure that Estes keeps the Wichita-area 4th Congressional District in GOP hands by fending off what would be a major upset by Democratic nominee James Thompson in the conservative district.
“If the election was in two more weeks, Thompson might win,” a Kansas Republican strategist told The Hill. “Thank God the election is tomorrow.”
Estes, a two-term state treasurer, was expected to cruise to the finish line on Tuesday, but the race has gotten surprisingly competitive in the final stretch. The GOP strategist believes Estes will still “easily win,” but by a closer than expected margin.
“It shouldn't be this close,” the strategist said. “[Estes’s] closest race should have been to get through the [nominating] convention, and then you’re skating. Right now, he’s not.”
The strategist describes Estes as a poor candidate who isn’t out campaigning enough for votes. By comparison, the strategist described Thompson’s campaign as “active” and full of energy.
Within the last week, election handicapper Cook Political Report moved its rating of the special election from “solidly Republican” to “leans Republican." And Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed its rating a day before the race from “safely Republican” to likely Republican.” Libertarian nominee Chris Rockhold is also running in the general election.
In a last-minute effort to boost Estes’s chances, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spent nearly $100,000 for Estes with TV and digital ads. In the TV ad, Republicans cast Thompson as “too extreme for Kansas,” claiming that he supports “late-term abortions.”
Thompson’s campaign pushed back, calling the spot “outright false” and asked a local radio station to pull it. Despite Thompson’s protests, an NRCC official said it was completely accurate and still airing, according to the Wichita Eagle.
Other Republican power players are also trying to bolster Estes. Vice President Pence was scheduled to record a robocall, while Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE (Wis.) made a donation plea on behalf of the Republican nominee.
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (R-Texas), who won Kansas during the 2016 GOP presidential primary, stumped with Estes at a Monday rally.
Estes’s wife, Susan, a well-known party activist in the district, has been organizing canvassing and turnout efforts, according to the GOP strategist.
The Estes campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
While the last-minute GOP effort suggests concern about the race, Thompson still faces an uphill climb in a district that has been in GOP hands since 1995. Trump handily carried the district in 2016, and Pompeo won reelection with 60 percent of the vote.
But Thompson’s campaign said there’s been a surge in grassroots support and donations since the NRCC’s attack. Thompson raised about $240,000 from 20,000 donations after the ad debuted, according to the Huffington Post.
“I’ve worked in Kansas politics for eight years now and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Thompson campaign spokesman Chris Pumpelly told The Hill. “I think we’ve got a good shot.
“We’re feeling good about the position that we’re in. We’re not taking any vote for granted and we’re fighting like hell for every vote.”
In the final sprint to Tuesday, Thompson increased his media presence with more TV and radio interviews. And he’s touted an endorsement from Our Revolution, a progressive political group that grew out of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Study finds Pfizer vaccine almost 91 percent effective for 5 to 11 year olds The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat Democratic frustration with Sinema rises MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential run.
The new national attention for the Kansas race has been a surprising development, especially given that Democrats’ attention has been mostly devoted to the Georgia special election in the state’s conservative 6th District, which Trump carried by only 1 point.
Democrats have gone all-in for 30-year-old investigative filmmaker Jon Ossoff ahead of the April 18 all-party “jungle primary” in the hopes that he can deliver a major upset in the suburban Atlanta district — and possibly win outright. But if no one reaches a majority, the top two finishers will head to a June runoff, where Ossoff is thought to be at a disadvantage.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has ramped up its efforts in Georgia with 70 paid staffers on the ground as well as a six-figure radio ad buy and mailer.
Thompson is getting last-minute help from the DCCC, which is funding get-out-the-vote calls.
In March, Thompson’s campaign feuded with the state party over a five-figure financial request.
During a conference call, the Kansas Democratic Party declined the $20,000 request for mailers from Thompson’s campaign. A member of the state party’s executive committee told the Wichita Eagle that the party couldn’t ultimately find the money needed by the campaign and noted that the party is trying to refill its coffers after the 2016 elections.
“If @KansasDems [executive] board members spent 1/2 the time organizing/ raising $ that they do arguing on Facebook, they might have a statewide office,” Thompson campaign manager Colin Curtis tweeted late last month.
Pumpelly, Thompson’s spokesman, insists that the campaign hasn’t dwelled on that exchange and talked up the state party’s help with voter turnout efforts and canvassing.
The Kansas race will be the first general election contest since Trump took office. But both Republicans and Democrats in the state don’t believe that the special election will be a referendum on the president, who remains popular in Kansas despite underwater national approval numbers in the low 40s.
The GOP strategist believes that ultraconservative Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who ranked as the least popular governor in the country in a September poll, has been more of a drag on Estes.
“Ron Estes has stood there with him the entire time as his top lieutenant,” Pumpelly said. “Here on the ground, it’s that anti-Brownback sentiment.“That’s really a big boost to our momentum is the fact that Gov. Brownback has absolutely punished our state with his terrible policies.”