A Democrat Tries to Pull Off a Kansas Miracle

(Photo: AP/Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

James Thompson hugs his wife, Lisa, in Wichita on February 11, 2017, after Thompson's selection to represent the Democratic Party in the special election on April 11.

It’s just after three in the afternoon on the Tuesday before Election Day, and James Thompson is in a gray Dodge truck driving away from the studios of yet another radio station. This time, the station was La Raza, a Spanish-language broadcaster that serves Wichita, Kansas, and its environs. For the past three months, the radio station spots, town halls, meet-and-greets, and debates have consumed Thompson’s days—now 12 to 15 hours long—as he attempts what folks here assume is the impossible: delivering one of the most solidly conservative congressional districts in the country to the Democrats.

This coming Tuesday, Thompson will be the first Democrat to test the political waters of a federal election since Donald Trump won the presidency five months ago. He is vying to represent Kansas’s Fourth Congressional District, a seat Representative Mike Pompeo held until Trump drafted him to head the CIA earlier this year. The seat has been in Republican hands for more than two decades, and Pompeo retained the seat by more than 30 points in each of the past three elections. Last November, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there by a 60 percent to 33 percent margin. It’s a deep red district in a deep red state, where the left has not challenged in years.

But Thompson, a civil rights lawyer, exudes confidence. He believes that, for the first time in more than a decade, voters in Kansas have soured on the radical conservatism that swept Sam Brownback into the governor’s office and led the Sunflower State down a years-long path of aggressive tax cuts and far-right social policies. Thompson also sees a historically unpopular president and a vibrant grassroots effort to oppose Trump’s policies, led by the Indivisible groups and others, that have adopted his campaign as their first battle against the president and the Republican-controlled Congress. He says he can feel a shifting political wind at his back.

Just days before the election, Thompson had attracted more than 7,000 individual campaign donations. He says that as far as he can tell, that’s the most ever in a congressional race in Kansas, special election or otherwise. His opponent, the state’s Republican treasurer Ron Estes, has run a comparatively quiet campaign, skipping most debates and quietly picking up the expected endorsements—the NRA, Kansans for Life, and so on.

Thompson, by contrast, has been pitching his story to voters without pause. A few weeks ago, Thompson, backed by a wall of beer barrels at Central Standard Brewing, just east of Wichita's Old Town, was talking to prospective voters from the Young Professionals of Wichita. Wearing a cross-class combination of work boots, blue jeans, collared shirt and sport coat, his glasses and beard topping his stocky frame, Thompson delivered his origin story with a breezy, Midwestern bluntness: He grew up in Oklahoma City, at times in deep poverty. He was briefly homeless as a teenager, but went on to graduate high school and join the Army in pursuit of funding from the GI Bill that would help him afford college.

After he left the military in 1994, he moved to Wichita, where his grandparents live, and attended Wichita State University. He paused from his origin story: “How many Shocks we got in here?” he asked the room, referring to the school’s “Shockers” mascot, and they clapped and hollered back. He said he’s running to fight for the three things that pulled him out of poverty: jobs, education, and the military. He wants to raise wages, fend off what he called attacks on education, in Kansas and nationally, and preserve care for veterans. His military, blue-collar pitch strikes resonant tones in the Midwest—particularly his mention of veterans, which the audience’s applause interrupted.

With just three months to campaign for the seat, Thompson settled on a platform that tugs from both sides of the state party—in part because it comes naturally to him, and in part because both pitches work in Kansas. He says he agrees with a lot of what Senator Bernie Sanders stands for—particularly his support for working people, better jobs and higher wages—and he has attracted Sanders supporters from the state’s major universities, who have staffed his phone banks and knocked on doors.

At the same time, he has branded himself a middle-of-the-road politician, someone who was encouraged to run by his friends on both the right and the left, and has attracted campaign volunteers from both parties. He’s a truck-driving, blue-collar Army veteran. That’s as Kansan as they come.

Most folks here still figure he’ll lose.

While Jon Ossoff, the talented Georgia Democrat, has won national headlines for his push to flip Representative Tom Price’s vacated House seat in suburban Atlanta, Thompson’s profile, and that of the Kansas race, has remained low. He has received little national press of note aside from a dust-up with officials from the Kansas Democratic Party, who last week refused Thompson’s request for cash from its coffers to help with the campaign.

While the state party said publicly that it denied the Thompson campaign’s $20,000 request because it simply didn’t have the money after an expensive 2016 election cycle, the likelihood (or unlikelihood) of his victory also factored in. A cash-strapped party in a red state won’t throw money at a race it can’t win.

John Gibson, a patent attorney who heads the state party, insists that the party will continue to support the campaign, and calls the tug of war over money a distraction from what has otherwise been a heartening endeavor for the Democrats. Young people have traveled to Wichita to help canvass and phone bank. Party officials and loyalists from the state’s other congressional districts have done the same. That alone is an important bellwether in a state where Democrats have been decimated at the polls for a decade or more. “That’s already a win for us,” Gibson says.

But being popular among college students is different from flipping a House seat. Without poll numbers to rely on, it’s hard to gauge Thompson’s chances to take the seat from the Republicans—but it is safe to presume they’re slim. “It’ll be a stunner if Thompson wins,” says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor and a sage of Kansas politics. Loomis says that while Estes is generally uninteresting, he’s a known commodity in the state and in Wichita, with solidly Republican credentials and support from Brownback.

But it is exactly that support from Brownback, whom Loomis rightly notes is “mired in the depths of unpopularity,” that has increased Thompson’s slim chances of winning. A survey of polls across the nation concluded that Brownback now has the lowest approval ratings of any of the nation’s 50 governors.

For the past decade, Kansas voters have elected perhaps the most conservative lawmakers in the country to the statehouse. Led by Brownback, the arch-conservative majority repeatedly and massively cut taxes on wealthy Kansans and, also repeatedly and massively, stripped crucial funding from the government, cuts that particularly decimated the state’s teetering public school system.

That changed last year, when Kansas voters elected more moderate state lawmakers. In the Senate, six Brownback allies lost primaries to more centrist Republicans, and the Democrats picked up a seat as well. In the House, eight GOP right-wingers lost primaries to moderates, and the Democrats picked up 13 seats. The new members, then, are Republicans in the Kansas moderate tradition of Bob Dole or Democrats in the mode of Kathleen Sebelius, rather than Brownbackians suffused with Randian rigidity.

Since November, the new lawmakers have made Brownback’s life far more difficult, forcing him to veto bills that would have ended his tax cuts, increased school funding, and expanded Medicaid. The vetoes do not appear to be popular. Last Saturday at a town hall in Olathe, a mixed-income suburb on the far-western fringes of the Kansas City metro area, a roomful of residents yelled and waved red “disagree” signs at their local statehouse delegation, urging them to override Brownback’s veto of a bill passed by the new, more moderate legislature that would have expanded Medicaid to another 150,000 at-risk Kansans. The state’s new moderate coalition is not yet veto-proof—the attempted override of Brownback’s Medicaid expansion veto lost by three votes—but may well grow in the 2018 elections.

Another factor boosting Thompson’s prospects is the politics of Wichita, the state’s largest city, and one of its most diverse. It’s also the only city to send Democratic lawmakers to the Kansas state Senate outside of the populous corridor that stretches along Interstate 70 from Kansas City to Topeka. Wichita’s former mayor, Democrat Carl Brewer, who was term-limited in 2015, is planning to run for governor in 2018.

At least for now, a hard turn to the left in Kansas, led by the Indivisible groups and others, is more a matter of activism and optics than it is of imminent electoral victories. Pompeo’s old congressional district could move toward the Democrats by 20 points and Thompson would still lose by double-digits.

But even if that happens, as most expect it will, it could nonetheless signal major changes for Kansas in 2018, when voters across the state will choose their congressional representatives. In the state’s Third District, a swath of Kansas City suburbs that voted for Clinton in November, Republican Representative Kevin Yoder won a narrow victory and is expected to face stiffer opposition next time around. The Second District, which includes the Democratic hubs of Lawrence and Topeka, will be the site of an open race next year after four-term Republican Representative Lynn Jenkins retires.

From the cab of his Dodge Ram, an undaunted Thompson says he feels good. He’s seen the enthusiasm up close, and come Tuesday, he thinks it will get people to the polls. “It’s ours to lose at this point,” he says as the truck barrels down the Kansas road.  

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