11 Things I Think I Think After the Kansas 4 Special Election

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 12, 2017 · 11:45 AM EDT

After a few months in the electoral desert, we finally have election results to digest from a competitive race, albeit an unexpected one.

State Treasurer Ron Estes pulled out a 53-46 percent victory to keep the 4th District of Kansas in Republican hands. The 7-point margin is shocking considering Donald Trump carried the Wichita-based seat by 27 points in last year’s presidential race. 

As with most elections, there is the temptation to boil everything down to a single conclusion, but elections (and life in general) are never that simple. So, inspired by Peter King and his team at Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback, I decided to jot down 11 Things I Think I Think after the Kansas election results. 

1. The Republican majority in the House was at risk before the results in Kansas. The Republican majority is at risk after the results in Kansas. The president’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections going back to 1938. In those 18 elections, the president’s party has lost an average of 33 seats. Democrats need to gain 24 seats in Nov. 2018 to regain the majority.

2. Republicans are too quick to blame Sam Brownback. Sure, the unpopular Republican governor is unpopular and I believe he had an impact on the race. But when the 4th District results are lined up with what’s happening in the special election in Georgia’s 6th District, and Trump’s slumping job rating, Republicans are whistling past the graveyard if they think there isn’t an at least temporary problem that extends beyond Kansas. President Trump is inspiring Democrats to action.

3. The midterm elections are still 19 months away. As I just pointed out, Democrats are set up to do well in November of 2018, but there is still a political eternity before we fully understand what the national conversation and mood will be like when those elections take place. For a bunch of people who wouldn’t know Kansas Democrat James Thompson from Mychal Thompson a couple weeks ago, there feels like a lot of certainty from reporters and political operatives about what the Fall 2018 political climate will feel like.

4. Let’s stop the “No One is Safe” silliness. “A WARNING SHOT was fired from Kansas toward every R on the '18 ballot: Dems are energized, few districts are safe,” tweeted Jonathan Martin of the New York Times on Tuesday night, even though his corresponding story wasn’t as inflammatory. The number of vulnerable Republican seats could balloon (as it did for Democrats from 2009 to 2010), but the concept that all or most of the 241 GOP held seats are vulnerable is closer to fiction than reality. 

5. Thompson announcing his 2018 candidacy against Estes was premature. If Thompson had prevailed in the special election, I think he would have been an underdog next year, when turnout will likely be something closer to normal. There just aren’t many Democrats representing districts Trump carried by 27 points and I don’t think Thompson would have been strong enough to break that trend.

6. I’m concerned that Byron Buxton is overhyped. I have the Minnesota Twins outfielder in a 14-team, mixed-league fantasy league and shunned trade offers for him when he was the top prospect in baseball. Even though Buxton finished 2016 strong, his 2017 start has been awful. He has two hits in 26 at bats before Tuesday and went 0 for 3 while Estes was pulling out a victory. I blame Brownback.  

7. Primaries can be a good thing. Estes was chosen as the GOP nominee by a few dozen people on the local party central committee. If there had been a more traditional primary, it could have magnified divisions within the party, but at least Estes would have been forced to ramp up his campaign earlier, presumably putting him in better shape for the general election. As is, he successfully navigated the convention and then ran an underwhelming race.

8. Being authentic is important. On one hand, Estes appeared to identify the distaste for Washington, but the Establishment Republican’s most notable ad was awkward. “His biggest commercial was him in a swamp with gators. He is not a tea party candidate from Alabama,” explained one frustrated Republican with Kansas connections. A different ad wouldn’t have prevented all the panic, but it could have helped Estes connect better with Republican voters he needed.

9. Can we please stop talking about California’s 34th District? On Tuesday, smart friends were putting together a trend line for an uptick in Democratic performance including Kansas 4, California’s 34th District, and on to Georgia. But I’m not convinced the special election in the Los Angeles seat to replace Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra tells us anything. In a field of 23 candidates, Democrats boosted turnout against a lone Republican (apartment building manager William “Rodriguez” Morrison), who didn’t raise and spend more than $5,000, since he apparently didn’t file with the Federal Election Commission. It looks like Democrats are using Trump to boost turnout, but this race tells us squat.

10. We’ll all sound smarter about these specials after 2018. The predictive value of special election results is greater after we know the results of the next, regularly scheduled elections. Whether it’s Democrat Paul Hackett’s loss in 2005 in Ohio (before Democrats gained 30 seats in 2006) or Democrat Mark Critz’s win in Pennsylvania in 2010 (before Democrats lost 63 seats six months later), it’s often hard to know how much or little to make of special election results until we know the fuller picture and which aspects of the race foreshadowed the future and which factors were unique to the special election.

11. BonChon is good. I’m still thinking about the Korean fried chicken lunch we had at the Navy Yard location on Saturday. Meanwhile, my Tuesday lunch at Eatsa was a combination of cool and creepy. Who is making the food behind the wall and how do I know they are of legal age to work in the United States?