The ingredients for a rising wave were all there. The controversial Republican president’s approval rating sat at an abysmal 28%. As elections approached, a special election was declared for the early springtime in a district that had been Republican since the 1994 midterm election. The seat’s former occupant secured a higher position, having to vacate his seat. Democrats nominated a relatively low-profile candidate from the legal field, while Republicans nominated an elected official from the district’s largest city. Despite the district’s clear conservative tilt and the Republican candidate’s higher name recognition, often important in a low-turnout special election, the GOP found itself panicking. Suddenly, what should have been a walk in the park became a nailbiter of a race. Attempting to buoy conservative turnout, Republicans flew in a high-profile national official to campaign for their candidate. Increasingly, pundits viewed the special election contest as a harbinger for the coming election. However, come Election Day, the unthinkable happened: Democrat Travis Childers defeated Republican Gregg Davis by a 12 percentage-point margin to return Mississippi’s First Congressional District back to Democratic hands. Indeed, in the federal election following this victory (including one in another GOP-held district of Louisiana), the Democratic Party gained a whopping 21 seats in the House of Representatives.
Famed Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano once stated, “History never really says goodbye. History says ‘See you later’.” In 2017, we find ourselves in a scenario in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District oddly reminiscent of 2008’s special election. President Donald Trump, like President Bush in 2008, has a terrible approval rating of just 35%. In a district represented by a Republican since 1994, a vacancy left thanks to the incumbent representative Mike Pompeo accepting a higher role as director of the CIA, a competitive race has emerged from what many assumed was just another safe Republican seat.
Civil rights attorney James Thompson faces off against the State Treasurer (and former treasurer of Sedgwick County, home to the district’s largest city). Republicans, assuming they had a safe seat until very recently, have suddenly panicked, sending national figure Ted Cruz to stump for the Republican candidate. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it has some striking parallels with Travis Childers’ victory in Mississippi’s First District.
Some folks are quick to write off Kansas’ 4th District campaign as an easy GOP win. After all, this heavily conservative district gave Hilary Clinton just 33% of the vote and no Democrat has won more than 40% since 2000. However, signs point to either an uncannily close loss or a shocking Democratic upset victory. Democratic candidate James Thompson has raised well over $600,000 and collected endorsements from groups like Our Revolution and Democracy for America. Volunteers from all across the country have mobilized to help out in this special election. Less than a week before the election, Ron Estes’ office sat vacant in broad daylight. Republican complacency has led to a last minute panic as they realize they’re falling behind. Cook Political Report, a major analysis group, recently moved the race from “Safe Republican” to a more competitive “Likely Republican” designation. This Democratic momentum is almost unprecedented in Kansas’ Fourth District, and if Tuesday’s results follow the current trend, Republicans should be sweating bullets for their future, because perhaps a blue wave is coming.
This race is much more than a random special election. Just like Travis Childers’ 2008 Mississippi win, it’s a major sign of things to come. If James Thompson can win, or even just lose by single digits, other upcoming special elections will not look optimistic for the GOP. In Georgia, 30 year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff has raised millions of dollars and edges closer to victory in the April 18th jungle primary election as the days pass. In Montana, hosting yet another special election, folk singer and Democratic candidate Rob Quist raised $750,000 in just a few weeks. If James Thompson exceeds expectations in Kansas, this is likely to embolden other Democrats in special elections. These candidates will likely profit from increased energy and fundraising efforts, helping them win their own districts’ battles. Looking even farther forward, it’s clear that special election victories can serve as a barometer for the national political climate.
The parallels between Mississippi’s 2008 First District race and Kansas’ 2017 Fourth District race are too striking to ignore. I have faith that James Thompson will perform well Tuesday, perhaps even scoring a Childers-style upset. In previous races, there was always a Republican candidate who worked hard. Instead, Estes is conspicuously absent from the campaign trail, including his aforementioned empty office and the 11 debates/forums he skipped. It’s no wonder that Democrats are poised to seize this opportunity–Estes, as the state treasurer, is easy to link to Governor Sam Brownback, who enjoys a (lowest in the nation) 26% approval rating. Moreover, despite his progressive stances on many issues, Thompson, like Childers, is not your average Democrat. His platform highlights his respect for the second amendment, an asset in this socially conservative district. With low turnout and one of the hardest working campaign teams I have seen, James Thompson’s campaign is ripe for a victory Tuesday, or at the very least, a quite close loss. Republicans better watch out, because this might just be the start of a Democratic tsunami.