WICHITA, Kan. — Kansas Democrats hoping to turn voter discontent into an upset picked civil rights attorney Jim Thompson to run for the U.S. House seat that Mike Pompeo vacated to become CIA director under President Donald Trump.
Thompson, a 46-year-old political newcomer and Army veteran, will run against Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes in the April 11 special election.
It will be the nation's first special congressional election since Trump's win, and Democrats view it as their best chance to flip the seat representing the heavily Republican 4th District in southern Kansas.
After winning the Democratic nomination, Thompson, told delegates that the nation was watching.
"This is going to be a referendum on Trump's policies," the Wichita attorney said.
Trump won 60 percent of the votes cast in the 17-county congressional district, which is home to the state's aircraft manufacturing industry and has some of the most productive farmland in the region. But Thompson urged Democrats to reach out and bring those voters back into the fold, and "let's get back to sanity and decency here."
"People are fired up and wanting to go out there and want to start to make changes right now," said Kerry Gooch, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. "This election gives them an opportunity, and we as the Democratic Party are going to do our best to try to capitalize on that."
Republicans have represented the district, which includes the state's largest city of Wichita, since Todd Tiahrt unseated veteran Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman in 1994. Pompeo won the state's 4th District seat in 2010, when Tiahrt gave it up to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. Tiahrt lost a GOP primary race to Pompeo in 2014.
On Thursday, Republican delegates chose Estes as their nominee. The 60-year-old Republican has said he is pleased with the direction Trump has taken the country.
"The Republicans have made their choice — and we couldn't be happier with their choice. We think they have left the gate open for us," Thompson said.
Thompson edged out former state Treasurer Dennis McKinney on the second round of delegate balloting on a 21-18 vote. Andover police officer Charlie Walker and business consultant Laura Lombard were eliminated after the first round, as each got only three votes. Robert Tillman, who has run for the seat twice, didn't get any delegate votes.
Republicans aren't taking the congressional seat for granted, given the typically low turnout for special elections.
"It could be vulnerable — we will have to see who the Democrats pick and take it from there," said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said earlier this week.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback remains deeply unpopular in Kansas, which has been facing a budget crisis that has hurt public schools and universities and cut into government services.
The Kansas Libertarian Party was also holding its nominating convention on Saturday.
Its candidates include Gordon Bakken, who ran on the Libertarian ticket last year, farmer John Kostner and flight-simulator instructor Chris Rockhold.