Kansas is one of those states that you just always assume is going to bleed red. If you asked someone not familiar with Kansas politics what party they thought controlled the state they would almost always guess Republican and they’d be right. Over the past decade Kansas has been on a mission of self-destruction, systematically electing some of the most conservative officials in the nation, including the universally despised Sam Brownback who has the dubious honor of being the governor with the lowest approval rating in the country.
The reddening of the state has been a painful exercise for Kansas which has seen its economy slow, its tax burden shift from the wealthy to the poor and its education, arts and infrastructure funding all slashed to make way for elaborate tax breaks for the rich.
This Tuesday on April 11th, Kansans will have the opportunity to redefine the direction of their state as Trump’s drafting of Mike Pompeo to head the CIA has opened up the seat in Kansas’ fourth congressional district. While historically this would seem like an easy win for the Republican nominee Ron Estes, the race has become something of a flashpoint with spectators and analysts looking on and weighing the unusual variables.
Enter James Thompson:
The Democratic nominee is not a brand name and you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of him before. The special election on April 11th is his first venture into politics but he’s already intimately aware of what plagues Kansas. Thompson has positioned himself as a kind of Kansas version of Bernie Sanders and has received support from many of the same groups that Sanders did. Despite the hasty schedule of the special election, Thompson has seen a surge in interest for his campaign and has managed to raise over $250,000 in a brief 58 days composed of 4,213 individual donations. These are strong grassroots type numbers that opened up a glimmer of hope for Kansans seeking a more moderate path forward in the face of Brownback’s stacked conservative deck.
As a political figure, Thompson’s “made in America” background is one that strikes near to the heart of many in Kansas. A U.S. Army veteran lifted from poverty by serving his country and a man who made his own way by using his GI Bill benefits to pave his way toward a law degree to ultimately become a civil rights attorney. This “working class” narrative does a great deal to thread the needle for Thompson and ease his progressive Democratic party credentials closer to the red shade of Kansas politics.
In many ways, Thompson’s politics and background are reminiscent of a “labor party” type candidate with a big focus on the working class, veterans and middle class values. In many ways, Thompson has entered this race to defend the American institutions that ultimately allowed him to reach his current position in life.
It’s easy to see why Thompson has generated a buzz in Kansas, his approachable style and demonstrable work ethic are attractive to a state that’s spent the last ten years being beaten into the ground by a far-right “business” administration. Thompson’s spent the last three months busily getting his hands dirty in long days and late nights meeting and speaking with the people of Kansas to push his message through the conservative quagmire that has sunk deep roots into the state’s governing bodies.
Who is Ron Estes?
If Tuesday breaks for Thompson it won’t solely be because of his working class values or his military background. Ron Estes is a wholly unappealing candidate even by Kansas GOP standards and that’s saying something.
Estes brings to the table an unremarkable career mixed between corporate consulting and state politics that trend so aggressively toward “the establishment” that you could swap his name out for any other lifelong Republican official and probably come up with a near identical resume. More importantly, the April 11th election seems less like a passionate calling for Estes and more like an assumed career step or a convenient opportunity.
Whereas Thompson has entered the race from his private life based on a core platform, Estes has stepped up from over a decade of state Treasurer offices (first in Sedgwick county and then as State Treasurer) to simply backfill a vacated chair with more of the same. This assumed ascendancy is part of what has drawn interest to Kansas in recent weeks. Brownback has spent much of his tenure staffing state offices with his own conservative loyalists and their climb through the state’s ranks was meant to be part of the machine that the GOP had built in Kansas. So the entrance of a Democratic newcomer who can actively challenge that assumption is more than concerning for election-minded Republicans.
It also doesn’t help that Brownback’s slumping approval ratings bring a negative reputation and a stained mark on his endorsement of Estes.
The State of Play:
The race itself has become something of a litmus test for just how fed up with failing conservative policies Americans (and specifically, Kansans) actually are. Within the April 11th election we have a unique blend of a particularly weak Republican nominee attached to a highly unpopular governor and a Democratic newcomer riding the popular coattails of the Bernie Sanders movement. This matchup pits a favorable field for Thompson against a state voting demographic that historically tilts hard to the right.
It comes as no surprise then that in the 11th hour as the race continued to look unusually competitive that the GOP stepped in to bolster Estes’ campaign.
As of two weeks ago, Estes was still creating these cringeworthy campaign ads:
Wherein he takes on the role of a confused, overgrown toddler who has become trapped in a local pond. From that pond he pitches a few GOP talking points including “after eight years of Obama” and references “the swamp” (while showing us the pond he climbed into) as reasons that Kansans should ignore their overwhelmingly conservative state government and somehow continue to vote for their failed policies.
Fast forward to this week and the ads have gone from “Kansas” to “Kansas as presented by Michael Bay”. Here’s an upload from April 6th:
If it seems like the tone has changed here it’s only because we went from a simple Kansas native who grew up on a farm and enjoys wandering around in swamps to calling your opponent “extreme” and screaming campaign buzzwords like “Obamacare”, “taxes”, and “abortion” at the viewer over and over. The desperation coming from the newer ads is enough to make you miss the old “someone please help, I’m stuck in a pond” Estes.
This comes to us as prominent Republican politicians like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz are turning their attention toward the race fearing that Thompson may have a better shot than they had previously anticipated. The NRCC recently dropped $92,000 into the race on behalf of Ron Estes to make up for his lackluster fundraising which has trailed significantly behind Thompson in terms of number of donations.
Tuesday’s election should have been a by-the-books victory for the GOP and it may ultimately still go their way. However, the simple fact that the race has become seen as “competitive” is reason to pay attention. This election has drawn the attention of the broader GOP, galvanized moderate and liberal demographics within the state and rallied momentum around a political newcomer in a state previously thought to be a conservative stronghold. If the Republicans weren’t sounding alarm bells before – they should be now.