Blame Sam Brownback: If Republicans lose a seat in Kansas, it won’t be Donald Trump’s fault

Even if Democrats fall short Tuesday, Republicans in the deep red state of Kansas are definitely in trouble

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published April 11, 2017 6:30PM (EDT)

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses the media about the legislative session during a press conference on Tuesday June 16, 2015, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan.  (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP) (AP)
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses the media about the legislative session during a press conference on Tuesday June 16, 2015, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP) (AP)

In the first test for the so-called resistance movement, Democrats are claiming a real surge of energy coming into Tuesday’s special election to replace Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, who vacated the seat to serve as President Donald Trump’s CIA director. But if the Democratic candidate can, by some small miracle, pull off an upset in the deeply red state, it will be thanks in large part to Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

The wave of moderate Republicans who swept last year’s GOP primaries should have been Brownback’s first clue that a revolt was brewing in his own party. Fourteen conservative state legislators allied with the governor were ousted in favor of more moderate Republicans who were critical of America’s least popular governor and his failed trickle-down economics experiment in the Sunflower State. Last month, in a stunning rebuke of Brownback, Republicans passed a bill to expand Medicaid in the state — an extremely popular move that Brownback vetoed.

In the first election since Brownback’s most controversial move and just ahead of the 100-day anniversary of what can at best be described as a tumultuous first 100 days in office for President Donald Trump, Republicans are bracing for blowback. It may very well be the longest of longshots, but for the first time in a long time, Democrats actually have a shot in the district that houses Koch Industries, owned by right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch.

While the executive director of a Republican super PAC recently claimed, “We’ll win the Kansas election by double digits,” it should be noted that Trump won the district by 27 points. Pompeo won reelection in November, 61 to 30, and a Democrat hasn’t held the seat since 1994. As recently as March 17, the Cook Political Report rated the race as “Solid Republican.” Republicans aren’t just simply settling for attempts to lower expectations, however. In addition to a six-figure ad buy by the National Republican Congressional Committee, Vice President Mike Pence and the president both recently recorded robo-calls for the Republican candidate, state treasurer Ron Estes.

In the president’s call, he called Estes “a conservative leader who’s going to work with me to make America great again … Ron is going to be helping us, big league.”

Republicans are running so scared ahead of the first congressional election of the Trump era that they even sent Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in to campaign for Estes over the weekend. House Speaker Paul Ryan also made a fundraising request for the Republican candidate’s campaign, according to the Kansas City Star. An internal GOP poll even has the race within one percentage point.

Blame Brownback.

Since the right-wing conservative became governor in 2011, the Kansas’ growth rate has been below that of the region and of the nation every year. The Cook Report’s David Wasserman explained how that directly impacts Tuesday’s race:

Republicans familiar with recent polling describe extremely high Democratic intensity and very low GOP enthusiasm in what is likely to be a very low turnout special. More than that, Estes appears to be swept up in a last-minute vortex of factors outside his control: Democrats’ anger towards Trump, independents’ anger towards Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP dissatisfaction with early administration failures.

“It would be a shock if Democrats won,” Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told Vox. “But the fact that we're paying attention at all may be indicative of some broader trends about the environment we’re in.”

For his part, Democratic candidate Jim Thompson, an army veteran who says he was inspired to run by Bernie Sanders, has raised more than $300,000 and received help from about 1,000 volunteers in the district in the final weeks of the campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also making 25,000 live calls into the district. 

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Congressional Election Elections Gop Kansas Republicans Ron Estes Sam Brownback Special Election