In an extraordinary political earthquake, Kansas Republicans held on to a dark red House seat in the Wichita area night by just a single-digit margin on Tuesday night, throwing into question whether the GOP’s majority can survive next year’s midterm elections.
Republican Ron Estes, the state treasurer, had been universally expected to easily win the special election in Kansas’ 4th District to replace Mike Pompeo, who left to become Donald Trump’s CIA director earlier this year. But instead, Estes found himself struggling in a district that Trump carried by a dominant 60-33 margin and Pompeo won by more than 30 points last year.
By contrast, Estes managed just a 53-46 victory over an unheralded Democratic opponent, civil rights attorney James Thompson, who lacked the support of most major national Democratic groups. (The lone major exception: Daily Kos issued a late endorsement and raised over $160,000 for Thompson.)
Even fellow Republicans opined that Estes had run a lackluster campaign, and he was hurt by intense energy among Democrats, who were spurred to strong turnout by antipathy toward Trump and Sam Brownback, the state’s deeply unpopular governor. A panicked GOP launched a last-minute rescue effort that involved almost six figures in spending from the NRCC, robocalls from Trump and Mike Pence, and a rally with Ted Cruz, and it may have just saved Kansas Republicans from themselves.
But this seat should never, ever have been so close in the first place, and the fact that it was should scare Republicans everywhere. Just 83 districts—out of 435—are redder than this one, and compared to Trump’s results, Estes’ performance was abysmal: His 7-point victory was 20 points worse than Trump’s 27-point win just five months ago. No fewer than 75 Republicans won last year by margins of 20 percent or less, so even if Republicans experience a swing against them of “only” half that size, they’re still in for a world of hurt.
Thompson’s strong showing will likely also energize progressives further and boost Democratic recruitment. If you’re a would-be candidate in a Republican-leaning district, a result like this gives you a lot of optimism. And it’s also very possible that Republicans in competitive seats may decide that 2018 is a good year to retire rather than face angry voters— which may in turn deter strong GOP recruits from running this cycle. There’s a lot of red turf out there that’s suddenly looking a lot more vulnerable, and if things keep up, Democrats could very well take back the House in 2018.