Democrats are savoring a moral victory despite coming up short in the special election to represent the 4th Congressional District of Kansas. A district that five months ago gave Donald Trump a 27-point blowout gave Republican Ron Estes a merely respectable 7-percentage point margin over Democrat James Thompson.
The president tweeted this morning: “Great win in Kansas last night for Ron Estes, easily winning the Congressional race against the Dems, who spent heavily & predicted victory!” Almost none of that was true: Democrats spent next to nothing to help Thompson, and it was Republicans who raced in at the last minute with emergency cash for Estes. The question now is whether Thompson’s surprisingly strong showing in one of the most reliably Republican districts in the country means anything for the elections yet to come.
With Trump’s presidential approval languishing in the upper 30s to low 40s, Democrats are certainly hoping that his misfortunes are building a blue wave for 2018. “There are over 100 Republicans sitting in districts that wouldn’t have been heavily GOP enough to overcome the D swing we saw in KS tonight,” Democratic data specialist Tom Bonier observed on Twitter.
But it is far from certain that we’re going to see a 20-point swing toward the Democrats in every precinct in every state across the country, whether it’s for the upcoming special House elections for what were Republican-held seats in Georgia, Montana and South Carolina, or in the 2018 midterm elections.
Two big questions remain. Was this race just another fluky special election that will not be easily replicated? And did Thompson in defeat give Democrats a road map for a winning strategy in 2018?
Special elections are often low-turnout affairs marked by local quirks, which can lead to aberrations in voting patterns. And the biggest quirk in Kansas was the Republican deadweight of its governor, Sam Brownback.
Brownback’s deep tax cuts had led to unpopular spending cuts in education, driving his approval down to a rock bottom 27 percent. Estes was tied to Brownback’s administration as state treasurer, and Thompson — whose internal polling showed Trump retaining majority approval in the district — mainly trained his fire on Brownback. In fact, Thompson credited Trump and his last-minute robocall endorsement with dragging Estes over the finish line: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but Mr. Estes didn’t beat us. It took the president of the United States.”
Still, it’s difficult to fully separate what’s happening in Washington from a congressional election, and what’s happening is a Republican meltdown. And that may be sapping enthusiasm among GOP voters nationwide.
Before last night, there was some evidence of depleted Republican energy in other special elections. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn reported last week, Republicans suffered a 5-point turnout drop in a Delaware state legislative race. And in the early vote for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, he wrote, “[Democratic] turnout is running about twice as high as it did at this point in 2014, while Republican turnout is about half what it was.” These are hopeful signs for Democrats, but they are only wisps of data.
Whether it was the troubles of Trump, Brownback or a combination of the two—or just the usual pattern of special elections—Republican turnout plummeted on Tuesday. Based on the unofficial results, Estes suffered a 62 percent drop in votes compared to the Republican candidate in 2016, while Thompson’s Democratic decline was only 32 percent.
Another Brownback won’t be hovering over the next round of special congressional elections. Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, is riding high with 63 percent approval, and Montana’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, has a solid 59 percent. South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster, has barely begun his tenure.
Without the aid of a gubernatorial albatross, and with uncertainty over how much Republican voters have soured on Trump, Democrats will need a potent national message that resonates in red America. And in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ improbable campaign, many progressives are pushing Democrats to adopt his populist platform and style to paint those working-class conservative districts blue. Did Thompson’s valiant effort make that case?
Sanders’ acolytes saw a kindred spirit in Thompson, but he stopped short of embracing the entirety of the Vermont senator’s platform. For example, he said of Bernie’s signature health care proposal, “I like the idea of single payer, [but] I don’t see it getting accomplished in our current political environment.”
But he campaigned with Sanders, credited him giving him the inspiration to run and relentlessly used Sanders’ frame of “fighting for the working class.” Thompson was also unabashedly liberal on combating climate change, protecting LGBT rights and providing undocumented immigrants with pathways to citizenship, though he mixed in support for “the right to bear arms.”
“[Thompson] felt he had already won” reported The Huffington Post, “because he had shown that Democrats could make a Republican district competitive by running on an unapologetically progressive platform.” True enough. Thompson’s gun-toting progressive populism was a marked improvement over last November’s blowout. But Michael Dukakis was an improvement over Walter Mondale; it didn’t mean Democrats should run as diminutive technocrats.
The hypothesis that a progressive economic populism can fully flip a white working-class district from red to blue remains unproven, especially when confronting a competing right-wing populism that intertwines protectionism with promises of deportation and environmental deregulation. In fact, Thompson’s populist pitch hit a wall similar to the one Hillary Clinton’s pragmatist campaign did. The only part of the Kansas district that Thompson won outright was urban Wichita; he failed to make a significant dent in the surrounding rural areas.
Meanwhile, the Democratic hope in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, the buttoned-down Jon Ossoff, is running a campaign that’s more pointedly anti-Trump and more ideologically moderate than the one we saw from Thompson. A recent ad shows Ossoff silently tweeting that we should “fix Obamacare, NOT repeal it” as well as “cut wasteful spending” and, instead of pining for the jobs of the past, “attract more high-tech jobs.” He ends by tweeting, “I’ll stand up to Donald Trump … he should act like a president.”
Georgia 6th does not resemble Kansas 4th in the slightest. The district is not economically hard hit. It includes affluent Atlanta suburbs and more than half the voters are college graduates. Trump barely edged Clinton there in November. A pitchfork populism would not be the right fit for the district. A poll from Atlanta’s 11Alive News found Ossoff’s current lead is based on “young, educated and affluent” voters who like his “talk of high-tech jobs and economic development.”
But just as Thompson’s strategy can’t be easily adopted by Ossoff, Ossoff’s upscale centrist message doesn’t provide much guidance to Montana Democrat Rob Quist. An Ossoff upset wouldn’t mean the country-singing Berniecrat should ditch his cowboy hat and tack rightward to win his statewide special election next month. The Big Sky state has a long history of Democrats successfully running as “prairie populists,” including Sen. Jon Tester, as well as the current governor, Bullock, and his predecessor, Brian Schweitzer. Quist is sensibly following their well-worn path. Ossoff’s performance also can’t tell Quist whether or not he should focus on skewering Trump’s conduct in office, since Trump won Montana by 20 points and likely still holds majority support.
Such is the Democratic challenge in building a blue wave. As the Clinton campaign learned the hard way, what works in the college-educated suburbs is not what works in the working-class manufacturing hubs and farm towns. The close Kansas contest may give Democrats a morale boost, but they have yet to solve the biggest political puzzle of all: a message that transcends America’s entrenched political, economic and cultural divides.