WICHITA, Kan. (CN) – It was a situation neither Democrats nor Republicans ever imagined: a tight race in the deeply conservative Kansas Fourth Congressional District, now seen as a bellwether for the 2018 midterm congressional election.
Tuesday’s special election came after former Rep. Mike Pompeo left to head up the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the past week, Republicans have spent a great deal of effort to keep the seat after internal polling revealed their candidate Ron Estes only held a single-digit lead over Democrat James Thompson. On Monday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz paid a visit to Wichita to campaign for Estes, the former Sedgwick County treasurer and current state treasurer.
Thompson, a political newcomer and civil rights attorney, campaigned as the anti-Gov. Sam Brownback choice, as Estes threw his support behind the unpopular governor in 2014.
Marcus Williamson, senior strategist for the Thompson campaign, said the groundswell of support for the Democrat was a good sign.
“Back in November, Brownback won here with, I think, a 30 percent margin,” Williamson said. “Any movement that closes that gap is fantastic. The fact that we’re in a toss-up makes us feel great.”
Williamson said Thompson’s campaign garnered 25,000 individual donations, many in the last week. Readers of the blog site The Daily Kos donated almost $150,000 to the campaign.
The last time Fourth District voters elected a Democrat was in 1992.
Republicans have not been taking their voters for granted, however. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent nearly $100,000 on local TV commercials that accused Thompson of using abortion to select gender.
In addition to recording a robocall, President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning, “Ron Estes is running TODAY for Congress in the Great State of Kansas. A wonderful guy, I need his help on Healthcare & Tax Cuts (Reform).”
Ask the local voters, however, and they’ll tell you the national attention doesn’t matter.
Marge Booker, a server at a Wichita restaurant, said the election came down to a single issue.
“I voted for Ron Estes because he’s pro-life,” Booker said. “I’m not the kind of person to just vote along party lines. I think either candidate could do well with the economy, but abortion is an important issue for me.”
Booker’s social conservatism mirrors that of other Kansans, though some decided to vote for Thompson based on their dislike of Brownback.
Barbara Wells, an administrative assistant, said she felt Estes didn’t understand the problems people in the district felt.
“He’s Brownback’s buddy,” Wells said. “He’s Trump’s buddy. I haven’t been any better off since he (Brownback) took office.”
It’s Brownback’s lack of popularity with Kansas voters that Thompson’s campaign counted on to win votes.
“Estes represents Brownback and people are tired of him and his policies,” Williamson said.
Popular or not, Kansas still remains home to a lot of social conservatives whose vote may hinge on one or two topics.
“I did research on both of them,” Booker said. “For me, it came down to the issue of life.”
Attempts to contact Roger Woods, Estes’ campaign spokesman, were unsuccessful by Tuesday evening.
After the polls closed, the race lived up to nail-biting expectations: as of 8:46 p.m. Central time and with 48 percent of the precincts reporting, Estes had a 0.2 percent edge – 49.3 to 49.1 percent.