Congressional, Elections

What to Watch for In the Kansas 4th District Special Election (Updated with Results)

The special election in the Kansas 4th district is not supposed to be on anyone’s radar.  When Donald Trump picked Congressman Mike Pompeo to be his CIA director, ratings for the special election started at “Safe R.”  The district is solid red, voting for Trump by 27 points.  It includes Wichita and several rural farm counties.  Both party candidates where chosen at local conventions, with Democrats choosing James Thompson, an attorney and avowed progressive and Republicans choosing State Treasurer Ron Estes.

The race has received little attention, but in the last two weeks, rumblings of Republican worry have arisen.  Top Republicans are apparently worried about Estes’ lackluster campaign and the fired up Democratic base.  The GOP worry about an upset in what is expected to be a low-turnout special election.  Republican’s have thus dispatched last minuted aid into Kansas, with Mike Pence and Ted Cruz making appearances in the final days.  Cook Political Report has moved their rating from Safe R to Lean R.   The fear for Republicans is Dems surging to the polls (they are outpacing the GOP in turnout % in early vote) combined with Trump fatigue creating a perfect storm for the Democrats.  Trump lost the Kansas 4th 2-1 in the GOP caucuses, and if these rural, evangelical Republicans feel apathetic about Trump so far, they may just stay home.

To be clear, I believe the GOP will retain this district.  If Thompson manages to get within single digits it will be a moral win for the Democrats of Kansas.  That said, low turnout specials mean anything is possible.

What to Watch

The fourth district comes down to two key geographies — Sedgwick County (home to Wichita) and not Sedgwick  County.  The county holds 68% of the likely vote in the district and is much more Dem friendly than the rest of the district.  Clinton still lost the county by a large margin, but did better in Wichita, where she lost 40% to 49%.

Kansas4 Pres

These Presidential numbers are from the excellent Presidential results by Congressional District calculations that DailyKos Elections did earlier this year.

Kansas 4th Pres

Trump’s win was solid across the board in the district.

In the 2014 Senate Race, which saw unpopular Incumbent Pat Roberts beat Independent Greg Orman thanks to the red wave and Kansas’ deep red lean, the margin was a much closer than President.

Kansas4 Sen

Kansas 4th Senate

Roberts beat Orman by over 12 points, not racking up Trump-like margins in the rural counties, and most importantly, under-performing in Sedgwick.

The closest race in the Kansas 4th in recent years has been the 2014 Gubernatorial Election, where unpopular Incumbent Sam Brownback nearly lost re-election, likely saved by the red wave that year.

Kansas4 GovKansas 4th Governor

Brownback barely won Sedgwick and under-performed Trump and Roberts across the district.   Brownback has only grown less popular with time and he definitely serves as a weight around Estes’ neck.

The district overall performs more Republican than the state, making a Democratic chance at a win there all the more difficult and monumental (if it occurs).


For Democrats watching the results come in, the key will be Sedgwick County.  If Thompson is not winning there, then he has no chance at carrying the district.  Thompson will need a solid Sedgwick margin and to hold decent margins in the farm counties.

I am expecting a GOP win when the votes come in.  That said, the fact anyone is even talking about this race is a real failure for the GOP.


Election night was full of suspense.  Thompson started off with a solid lead thanks to the Democratic-leaning early vote, but gradually lost ground as election day came in.  Thompson wound up falling 6 points short, disappointing Democratic activists, but still miles better than past Democratic candidates.

Kansas 4th Results

Thompson managed to be the first Democrat in a long time to win Sedgwick county, which made up 68% of the entire district’s vote.  However, Thompson did not win in Harvey, the next most Democratic county, and lost badly in the rural portions of the district.  However, Thompson did make improvements over Hillary Clinton (and most Democrats) across the board.  The margin became 21 points more Democratic than it had in the 2016 elections.  Thompson made massive improvements in many rural counties, however several showed less elasticity.

KS-04 Chart

Kansas 4th Results Shift from 2016

Thomson won Sedgwick by making gains across the county, improving in rural precincts and the city of Wichita.  Much of the area in Wichitah that Thompson only made slight improvements on were already heavily Democratic.  Unfortunately for Thompson, the regions outside Sedgwick were so Republican that even notable improvements still meant bad losses that added up.  Thompson likely needed a few more points in Sedgwick, or doing better in its surrounding counties, to offset the rural loses.

The Kansas 4th was the first sign of GOP under-performance in special elections, a trend that would continue in MT-AL and SC-05.  Rising Democratic expectations toward the end turned what should have been a shocking result (with the story being GOP under-performance) instead into a tale of Democratic disappointment.  In reality, the district is a solid GOP seat that got close thanks to a turnout disparity toward Democrats and an unpopular incumbent Republican President.  Needless to say, don’t expect to see the Kansas 4th on the top target lists next year or beyond.

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