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Trump Steps Into Closer-Than-Expected Kansas Special Election

National Republicans have made late investments in heavily GOP district

Kansas Treasurer Ron Estes is the Republican nominee in Tuesday’s 4th District special election. (Courtesy Kansas for Estes Facebook page)
Kansas Treasurer Ron Estes is the Republican nominee in Tuesday’s 4th District special election. (Courtesy Kansas for Estes Facebook page)

It’s not often that a sitting Republican president, vice president, a former presidential candidate and senator and the speaker of the House make an effort days before a special election to hold what’s supposed to be a safe GOP seat. 

“Today, the eyes of the whole country are on Kansas,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said at a Monday rally for state Treasurer Ron Estes, the GOP nominee in the 4th District.

The same day, President Donald Trump recorded a robocall for Estes, who, based on the late involvement of national Republicans, finds himself in a closer-than-expected election to fill the seat vacated by Trump’s CIA Director Mike Pompeo

“This is an important election,” Trump says on the call. “There’s really few very much more important.”

Shaping the narrative

But the real drama in Kansas’ 4th District may not be whether Estes wins Tuesday night, but rather by how much. Both parties will likely use that margin to shape their political narratives going forward ahead of another special election in a much more competitive district next week.

While the voices of national GOP heavyweights have flooded the district over the past few days, national Democrats have quietly smiled at the Republicans’ panic but largely stayed away.

Until the day before Election Day, that is. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running 25,000 live phone calls on Monday, confident that it’d be too late for any association with the national party to damage nominee James Thompson in deep red territory. 

Democratic strategists say Thompson has likely been able to narrow the gap with Estes because of, not despite, the lack of investment from the national party.

“It’s probably better strategically for [Democrats] to ‘not’ have invested,” one Democratic consultant said. “He’s been successful by flying under the radar,” another operative added.

Meanwhile, the late Republican support for Estes has come from all corners of the party. Before Trump did the same, Vice President Mike Pence recorded a robocall on behalf of the GOP nominee over the weekend. Days before, Speaker Paul D. Ryan sent out a fundraising pitch.

The National Republican Congressional Committee invested $92,000 in TV and digital ads in the district last week. It’s running an ad about Thompson’s position on abortion, which Thompson and the moderator of a recent debate said distorts his record.  

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, spent five figures on phone calls. And as of the latest Federal Election Commission filing, nearly 20 members of the House and Senate had contributed to Estes’ campaign, in addition to former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. The Koch Industries’ PAC pitched in too. 

“We’re making sure we have our ducks in a row,” one national Republican said of his party’s late spending. “We’re helping get out our base and prevent it from coming down to the wire.” 

No Democratic member of Congress has contributed to Thompson’s campaign. Grass-roots donors, though, have attempted to deliver a late cash infusion. Thompson is backed by Our Revolution, the group founded in the wake of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales moved the race’s rating from Solid Republican to Likely Republican on Friday. 

Trump carried the district by 27 points last fall, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, while Pompeo won re-election by 31 points. Democrats aren’t feigning much optimism about winning here. The fundamentals of the district are too daunting. But narrowing the margin would be good for them, especially the week before the highly nationalized special election in Georgia’s 6th District.

Closer than it once was

Estes didn’t have to impress that many people to get on the general election ballot. At the special nominating convention in February, made up of just 126 district delegates, Estes won 66 votes on the final ballot. Both Estes and his wife both served as delegates at the convention. 

His nomination was heralded as a win for establishment Republicans over Trump allies. Alan Cobb, a former Trump campaign staffer and onetime state director for Americans for Prosperity, came in second — and has since donated to Estes’ campaign. 

But Estes hasn’t widely impressed on the campaign trail. He’s been panned for a “drain the swamp” themed commercial in which he appears to be stranded in a swamp

As unpopular as national Democrats may be in Kansas, local Democrats have also been working to tap into the unpopularity of a home-state Republican. Thompson’s campaign has tried to tie Estes to Gov. Sam Brownback in much the same way that Democrats did against GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder last cycle. 

Republicans acknowledge that this race is closer than it once was, which they chalk up to the unpredictability of a low-turnout special election driven by the bases of both parties.

“We do understand the Democrat base is seriously motivated to oppose Donald Trump,” the Republican operative said. “They’re not casting a vote against Ron Estes, but against Donald Trump.” 

But still, that’s evidently scared the GOP enough to call in reinforcements.

Cruz went in with red meat for the conservative base Monday, calling Thompson a “liberal Democrat” and tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“Our enemy right now is complacency,” the Texas Republican said, urging the crowd to show up and get nine of their friends to vote too.

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