Republicans survived quite a scare in Tuesday’s special election in Kansas, the first major vote since Donald Trump’s victory. And the vote could portend good news for Democrats in the next election – next week’s Georgia contest to succeed Tom Price.
Republican John Estes single-digit victory over Democrat James Thompson came in a Kansas district that Trump won by a whopping 27 percent just five months ago. And it took a sweeping GOP rescue effort that featured a robo-call from Trump and visits by Sen. Ted Cruz to help Estes eke out the victory.
Trump had more tepid support in Georgia’s 6th District, which stretches from east Cobb to north DeKalb. And Jon Ossoff, the leading Democrat in the 18-candidate race, has attracted far more fundraising dollars and national attention than the little-known challenger to Estes in Kansas.
“If Jon Ossoff’s fundraising numbers weren’t enough of a wakeup call for Republicans, the election results in Kansas should be,” said Georgia GOP strategist Chip Lake.
Key dynamics in the race are certainly different: While national GOP groups rushed in to the state over the last week to play defense, they have been pouring millions into attack ads against Ossoff for months. And Estes’ struggles were also seen as a rebuke to unpopular Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
“Those states don’t have a highly unpopular governor that is going to have the proverbial millstone around the candidate’s neck,” Michael O’Donnell, a Kansas GOP commissioner, told the Wichita Eagle on whether the vote signals trouble for Republicans in Georgia.
What’s more, the Kansas race featured just three candidates while Georgia’s race has 18 candidates sharing the same stuffy ballot. A June 20 runoff looms if no candidate gets a majority vote, but Ossoff is aiming for an outright win and is hovering in the mid-40s in recent polling.
But there are also some gripping similarities. Democrats and other Trump critics in Kansas rallied around Thompson in hopes of dealing the White House a staggering defeat in its first months. And skittish Republicans eager to avoid a devastating setback pulled out all the stops to defend their turf.
Georgia GOP analysts took stock in a glimmer of good news: Estes pulled off the victory despite early voting that heavily favored Democrats. Conservative operatives have nervously tracked early voting results in Georgia, too, that seem to favor Ossoff’s campaign.
But Lake said the Kansas race shows more broadly how Republicans running textbook campaigns in seemingly safe districts have good reason to be antsy.
“It was a close race,” he said, “and it shouldn’t have been.”