WICHITA, Kan. — Ron Estes, the Republican candidate for an empty House seat in Kansas, survived a surprisingly competitive race in a heavily conservative district Tuesday.
He defeated James Thompson, the Democratic candidate, in the first national test of the Republican Party’s electoral strength, in a contest that saw a late infusion of national support from Republicans nervous about the tumultuous political environment during President Donald Trump’s initial months in office.
Estes, 60, the state treasurer, overcame the challenge by Thompson, a Wichita civil rights lawyer, 53 percent to 46 percent, according to unofficial results, to fill the seat in the district that was vacated by Mike Pompeo, now the CIA director.
In a race more than a year before the midterm elections, Estes was initially expected to cruise to victory in a district that his party had held for more than two decades and that Trump had won by 27 points. But after internal Republican polling last week revealed Estes’ lead was in only the single digits, the national party scrambled to rescue his campaign — and effectively conceded that even seats in the reddest corners of the United States were not safe at a time when Democrats are so energized against Trump.
In his victory speech late Tuesday, Estes took aim at those who thought he might lose.
“The pundits were talking about — this wasn’t a seat we were going to win,” Estes said before several hundred people in a hotel ballroom, “that we were going to lose a Republican seat, that it was a special election, that it was a chance for the Democrats, they were motivated, there was a lot of angst against the president. But we really showed the pundits tonight, didn’t we?”
“We’re going to continue that process that started in November and make the changes in Washington,” he added.
Estes said he hoped his victory would set the tone for the other special elections to replace members of Congress who took jobs with the Trump administration. But many officials in his party, who were up anxiously watching the returns late into the night Tuesday, hope to avoid any more stressful-inducing races.
While Thompson fell short, his unexpected strength represents a warning shot toward Republicans. And it will galvanize Democrats’ candidate-recruitment efforts for next year’s campaign.
The surging energy on the left was on display Tuesday night when the early and absentee vote returns were tallied in the district’s largest county and revealed Thompson to have staked out a considerable lead. But Estes overcame that deficit thanks to his strength in the more rural parts of the district and among Election Day voters.
Until last week, few in either national party were paying attention to this race. A special election in an Atlanta-area House district that was almost evenly divided in last year’s presidential campaign was the contest receiving millions of dollars and extensive news coverage. The first indications about the country’s political landscape would be gleaned there, it was thought, not in the Wichita-based seat.
But then the House Republican campaign arm released a venomous ad accusing Thompson of favoring abortion rights for gender selection. Soon after, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas scheduled a rally for Estes on Monday. And Trump and Vice President Mike Pence recorded automated get-out-the-vote calls.
A super PAC aligned with the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, also intervened, paying for live-turnout calls to likely Republican voters. All told, national Republicans spent about $150,000 on the race.
“Mr. Estes did not beat us,” Thompson told supporters after the race was called. “It took a president of the United States, the vice president, the speaker of the House, a senator coming into our state and a bunch of lies to drum up a vote.”
To the consternation of some rank-and-file liberal activists, Washington-based Democrats barely sought to compete in Kansas. The House Democratic campaign arm reached out last week to Thompson but only to inquire whether he had any internal polling to share. (The Thompson campaign, conserving its resources, had not spent cash on survey work.)
Only Monday, when it became clear the race was being seriously contested, did House Democrats announce that they were spending money on a late wave of get-out-the-vote calls. Thompson, however, was helped by nearly $150,000 from Daily Kos, a liberal blog, and some more modest contributions from a group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Special elections can be quirky, at times presaging a coming political wave and in other cases carrying no great symbolism. But they are often hard to predict because their odd timing makes turnout projections difficult.
Republicans, grumbling over what they said was Estes’ lackluster campaign, insisted that they were taking only precautionary measures in a district where Trump remains relatively popular but where Gov. Sam Brownback has become a weight on the party. Estes played down his connections to the governor, whose cuts to education have sent his approval ratings tumbling, and at times bridled about Thompson’s focus on state politics.
But for Thompson, a political novice who was a supporter of Sanders’ campaign, focusing on Brownback was the most effective way to run in a region that is decidedly Republican in its national political leanings.
The last time a Democrat won this seat was in 1992, when Dan Glickman, who was later President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary, hung on in one final race before being swept out in the Republican landslide of 1994.
And last year, Pompeo barely had a race at all: He won by 32 points, or by nearly 4.5 times more than Estes did on Tuesday.