Democrats on Tuesday night almost won a House seat in a Kansas district that has been sending Republicans to Congress for more than two decades and that Donald Trump won by 27 points. But at this point, after suffering so many setbacks in 2016, the Democrats need more than another “almost.”
The party had a chance to score a game-changing victory in Tuesday’s special election by filling the seat that opened up when Donald Trump tapped Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo to head the CIA. It was an outside chance, to be sure. But it was real, and it became more real as election day approached. Unfortunately, national Democrats failed to recognize—or respond sufficiently to—what was happening on the ground.
But something was happening—as the results ultimately revealed.
Just last year, Pompeo won reelection with 60.7 percent of the vote, as compared with just 29.6 percent for the Democratic candidate. When Pompeo—a Koch-brother acolyte who represented the region where Koch Industries is headquartered—joined the Trump administration, the first post-2016 special election for a House seat was called. Washington Republicans assumed they had the seat locked up, and Washington Democrats generally agreed. Talking-head pundits could barely be bothered to pay attention.
But civil-rights lawyer James Thompson was paying attention. Inspired by the 2016 presidential run of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Thompson jumped in the race and ran a smart, progressive populist campaign that—despite his newcomer status and relatively small campaign treasury—resonated with a lot of voters.
On Tuesday, Thompson took almost 46 percent of the vote—improving on the Democratic percentage from 2016 by more than 16 points. Where Pompeo regularly won by margins of more than 30 points, Republican Ron Estes won this year by under seven points.
Could Thompson have won the seat?
Yes. The Kansas contest was always going to be an uphill race. But a combination of history and the unsettled Trump moment held out possibilities from the start. Special elections are strange beasts. They produce upsets, especially when presidents are unpopular—the classic scenario came in 1973 and 1974, when Democratic wins in unexpected corners of the country confirmed just how much trouble a Watergate-plagued Richard Nixon was in. History provides plenty of other examples of special-election upsets—and of the powerful boosts they provide for out-of-power parties—and savvy partisans are well aware of what’s at stake when one-off elections are held at volatile moments.