WASHINGTON — Republicans escaped a special House election in Kansas with a single-digit victory in a district where they have romped in the past, an early warning sign for the GOP at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The narrow win in Kansas, where CIA Director Mike Pompeo prevailed by 31 percentage points last fall, emboldened Democrats ahead of a more competitive special congressional election in Georgia next week that could serve as a test of their ability to marshal anti-Trump forces.
“Democrats are showing up and Republicans have to energize their base,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who once led the GOP’s House campaign arm. “A win is a win but this should have been relatively simple and it wasn’t.”
The special election was the first major contest since Trump’s inauguration and could be an early indicator of Democrats’ ability to mobilize against the president’s policies and whether Republican failure to overhaul health care policy might sap party enthusiasm. Trump’s job approval ratings have hovered around 40 percent, creating unease among Republicans looking to maintain their congressional majorities.
Republicans have had a difficult stretch, with the health care debacle, federal and congressional probes into Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials and contentious town halls in congressional districts. On Monday, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who shouted “You Lie!” at President Barack Obama during a 2009 health care speech, heard chants of the same phrase at a town hall from constituents angry about health care and his voting record on violence against women.
In a tweet, Trump praised Republican Ron Estes’ “great win” and for “easily winning the Congressional race against the Dems, who spent heavily & predicted victory!”
Great win in Kansas last night for Ron Estes, easily winning the Congressional race against the Dems, who spent heavily & predicted victory!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2017
But that was hardly the case. The seven-percentage point margin was closer than initially expected in a district that Trump won handily last November and Republicans have held since 1994. The Democratic candidate, James Thompson, was a political novice who couldn’t attract big-dollar donations from Democrats around the nation.
In a sign of concern for Republicans, Thompson edged Estes in the district’s most populous county surrounding Wichita, a county Trump won by 18 points last November. Wichita is home to Koch Industries, the company led by conservative billionaire political donors Charles and David Koch.
Fearing potential fallout, Republicans injected last-minute money to help Estes while Trump and Vice President Mike Pence recorded get-out-the-vote phone calls on the candidate’s behalf. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz campaigned with Estes on Monday, warning of complacency.
In Kansas, one factor was Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who remains unpopular because the state has faced serious budget problems since the governor and GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013. Thompson portrayed Estes, the state’s treasurer, as a close Brownback ally even though the governor never publicly endorsed Estes.
Republicans, who hold a 237-193 majority, will be defending seats in special elections in Georgia, South Carolina and Montana, where Donald Trump Jr. is planning to campaign for a GOP candidate next week. Democrats are expected to maintain a California seat vacated by former Rep. Xavier Becerra, now the state’s attorney general. Races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey next fall could also provide a window into Trump’s popularity.
Georgia’s April 18 contest to replace former Rep. Tom Price, who is serving as Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, is expected to be more competitive than Kansas. Trump barely edged out Democrat Hillary Clinton in the district last year.
Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide and investigative filmmaker, has raised more than $8 million, a massive amount for a special election, and has tried to galvanize Democrats who hope to turn it into a referendum on Trump’s performance.
Next week’s outcome could be significant in a field of 18 candidates from both parties on the primary ballot. Polls have shown Ossoff leading in the first round of balloting but Republicans are hoping to keep him below the majority needed to win outright, which would create a two-person runoff on June 20.
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who leads the House Republicans’ campaign arm, said Ossoff’s best chance of claiming the seat is to win outright next week, “and he knows that. That’s why he’s raising expectations on himself.”
Karen Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state, has led the Republican field but the race has turned nasty, with GOP rivals accusing her of being a political opportunist and the conservative Club for Growth spending six figures on ads to defeat her.
The suburban Atlanta district is the type of place where Democrats are pinning their hopes on recapturing the House next year.
“Republicans in the era of Trump have a problem even with Trump voters in the suburbs,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former strategist for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “That doesn’t predict or guarantee victory for Democrats in 2018 but it’s a road map.”
Associated Press writers John Hannah in Topeka, Kansas, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed.