The campaign to fill CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s Kansas congressional seat is underway.
The election on April 11 will be the first congressional contest to be decided since President Donald Trump took office. Republicans near and far are treating it as an early test of the new president’s agenda.
At a nominating convention Thursday in Wichita, Republicans picked State Treasurer Ron Estes, an Osage native, to be their candidate for the 4th District seat.
By Saturday, Estes was passing the hat at the state GOP convention in Manhattan, but he said donors had already pledged about $100,000 to his campaign.
Alan Cobb, a former Trump campaign adviser and staffer for Sen. Bob Dole, came in second to Estes for the nomination. He told state party officials he would transfer the $100,000 raised for his prospective campaign to the county parties to aid get-out-the-vote efforts.
The 4th District has been a safe Republican seat for two decades and so hasn’t typically drawn much attention from national campaign groups or their fundraising firepower.
But this time the National Republican Congressional Committee has agreed to joint fundraising with the state party, meaning individuals can write bigger single checks (up to $272,000, with the $2,700 limit distributed to the Estes campaign, $10,000 to the state party and rest split among three NRCC accounts) and more donations are likely to come from outside Kansas. The Republican National Committee will also be involved in fundraising for the special election.
Even the White House’s campaign arm has reached out. Kansas GOP officials are angling for a presidential visit.
“I think the president is interested in making sure the Republicans maintain a strong majority in the House so he can get his agenda passed through,” National Committeeman Mark Kahrs said Saturday in Manhattan.
Others at the convention, including Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback, speculated that Democrats are hungry to hand Trump an early defeat.
“Just think what a big deal it would be if President Trump, in the first special election of his presidency, loses a Republican seat in a red state,” said Secretary of State Kris Kobach, addressing the 4th District committee members at the state convention. “They want that scalp so badly.”
National Democratic organizations are interested in the race and may pitch in. But the Democrats’ candidate, Wichita civil rights lawyer and Army veteran James Thompson, is a political newcomer and will first have to show that he can make it competitive.
Thompson’s campaign website, which went live soon after he was nominated Saturday in Wichita, makes almost no mention of Trump. Instead, his campaign takes aim at Brownback for his economic and education policies – a tactic that worked for Democrats who defeated more than a dozen legislative conservatives this fall.
Chris Pumpelly, Thompson’s campaign manager, sees this special election as a continuation of the 2016 election season in Kansas. He branded Estes as a “Brownback clone.”
“[Estes] could not stand up to Sam Brownback. How in the world could we expect Ron Estes to stand up to Donald Trump when he attacks our Constitution?” Pumpelly asked.
Pumpelly said hundreds had signed up to volunteer in the first 24 hours of Thompson’s campaign.
“While Ron Estes is taking his PAC money and his big checks from D.C., we’re going to be working on getting people in Kansas involved, and that’s why we’re going to win this race,” Pumpelly said.
The phone banking, Pumpelly said, would start Monday.
When the news of the Democrats’ nomination broke, Republicans in Manhattan were quick to tag Thompson as a Bernie Sanders progressive. (Indeed, Thompson was inspired by Sanders’ presidential run.)
“There’s a lot of folks that are pushing the Bernie Sanders mindset, which is not gonna win in the 4th District,” Estes said.
Estes, who cast an electoral vote for Trump, said he’s eager to get to Washington to help the president repeal and replace Obamacare, reform the tax code and ease regulations on businesses.
“You know he campaigned on some things, and now he’s a man of his word, and he’s actually out doing them,” Estes said.
Along with the Republican Estes and Democrat Thompson, Libertarian Chris Rockhold will be on the ballot. Independents have until Feb. 18 to collect 3,000 signatures and petition.
The special election will be decided on the 82nd day of Trump’s presidency.
Amy Jeffries is an editor for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration covering health, education and politics based at KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @amyoverhere.