On Tuesday night, Democrat James Thompson did not win the first congressional election in the country since President Donald Trump was elected. But he came within 7 points in one of the most Republican districts in the nation. And Democrats are absolutely thrilled about what that says about their party in the era of Trump — with good reason.
"If we can make Republicans go into full-on freakout mode in a ruby red Kansas congressional district now," said Jim Dean, director of the progressive group Chair of Democracy for America in a statement, "we have the power to rip the gavel out of Paul Ryan's hands in November 2018."
Maybe. What happens in April 2017 does not mean the same thing will happen in November 2018, when the entire House of Representatives is up for reelection. But it's the best evidence we've got that right now, voters in traditionally Republican districts aren't thrilled with Trump.
As my colleague Aaron Blake wrote yesterday, it's hard to overstate just how Republican this Witchita-area congressional district has been:
— CIA Director Mike Pompeo's old district gave Romney 62 percent in 2012 and Trump 60 percent in 2016.
— It was the 93rd most pro-Trump district in the country.
— Only one Democratic-held district gave Trump more of its vote — (Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson's district, which gave Trump 62 percent).
Democrats hold only three other districts that even gave Trump a majority.
On Tuesday, this district swung more than 20 points in favor of the Democrat. And there were no race-specific factors that should have made this an anomaly among congressional elections. Thompson, a civil rights attorney with no legislative experience and very little help from the national Democratic Party, wasn't an uber-gifted candidate who could overcome these fundamental barriers. Nor was Rep.-elect Ron Estes, the state treasurer, a particularly flawed GOP candidate.
All of which leads us to conclude that there are national factors that spurred Thompson's surprisingly close loss. Specifically, this election was a window into how voters in this deep-red congressional district feel about Trump and Republicans' leadership right now.
Especially in a special election, most voters aren't paying much attention to the candidates when they go to vote, said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan elections analyst and columnist at The Washington Post. Which means many are voting to send a message to Washington rather than for a specific congressional candidate.
"When they think about choices, they tend to think big choices: change versus status quo," Rothenberg said. "Keep the president, or send a message of dissatisfaction to the president."
Seen through that lens, Thompson's 7-point loss should have Republicans across the country very worried. Estes performed 20 points worse than Trump did in this district just five months ago. In 2018, Republicans will be defending 23 seats that Clinton won. If Democrats can net 24 seats, they would recapture the majority.
More immediately, Kansas's results will likely rev up progressive momentum in a more high-profile special election coming up in a week outside Atlanta, where 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff is trying to win a majority of the vote against some 16 mostly Republican candidates to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Again, this is a traditionally Republican district, and the fact we're even talking about its competitiveness is extraordinary.
"This race is as much about the next year and a half nationally as it is about district," Rothenberg said. "Ossoff wins and suddenly every Republican in a swing district is going to be nervous and they will demonstrate their independence.
If Ossoff wins, or even if he forces the race into a runoff, that could manifest an even bigger drag on Trump's historically low popularity: House Republicans become more resistant to working with their president, which in turn makes Trump's job trying to pass big legislation with his party that much more difficult. And that in turn leaves him and a Republican Congress, without many victories to call home about next November.
In the past, special election upsets were trembles of a big wave coming against the party in power.
It's still a year and a half away, but right now Republicans can barely hang onto a district that Trump won by nearly 27 points. It's fair to say they should at least be very worried about what Tuesday's results underscore for their party's popularity right now, even among their core voters.