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Ossoff, Thompson, and the future of Democrats in red states

 

After today, Democrats will have a much better idea of how many House seats could swing their way in 2018, as James Thompson and Ron Estes face off in a special election to fill Mike Pompeo’s seat in Kansas’ 4th district, which includes Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita. I grew up in the Wichita area and to say it’s heavily Republican would be an understatement. Barber County went only 13% for Hillary Clinton in November, Harper County 15%, and Sedgwick County 36%. Pompeo won re-election here in November 32 points ahead of his Democratic opponent.

So why are Republicans scared they won’t hold onto this district?

Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Ted Cruz are all making stops in Kansas’ 4th before the election on Tuesday to stump for Estes. That’s remarkable for a special election in a heavily Republican district. This special election should have been a rubber stamp for Estes but instead Republicans are pouring in money (some from the Koch brothers, whose company is headquartered here) and star power to try and defeat a Democratic newcomer funded on small donations.

A week after Thompson’s race comes Jon Ossoff’s more publicized bid to succeed Tom Price in Georgia’s sixth district. Unlike Thompson’s race, Ossoff has received the benefit of national attention and dollars, spurred on partly by a February segment on Rachel Maddow highlighting the importance of the race. Ossoff has raised 8.3 million dollars (95% from out of state), an unbelievable number – about four times as much as most Congressional candidates spend.

Clinton lost here by less than two points, but Price won re-election by 23 points and the area hasn’t had a Democratic representative since John Flynt in 1979, himself a Dixiecrat who’d have no place in today’s Democratic Party. Yet despite the area’s conservative hold, Republicans are worried enough about losing this race that they revealed one of the more distasteful, dishonest political ads in recent memory, attempting to tie Ossoff to Osama bin Laden through Ossoff’s work for the news organization Al-Jazeera. Republican Judson Hill sent out a mailer with a drawing depicting Ossoff as a machete-wielding terrorist.

Republicans are playing hardball in Kansas and Georgia because these races may represent an erosion of Republican control over the South and lower Midwest. If the Thompson race is close, political consultant Dana Houle estimates there may be 75 to 100 GOP-held seats up for grabs in 2018. If the race is within ten points, that shows a massive change in Democratic fortunes in the area from just six months ago. And if Democrats have a future in states like Kansas, they’ll need candidates like Thompson. Charismatic and energetic, Thompson is a veteran whose main issues are Kansas jobs, veterans, and the Constitution.

While a lot of the language on his website has a conservative bent – he affirms his belief in the second amendment and his desire to fight for the rural way of life – he uses strong pro-LGBT language, talks about climate change, and is endorsed by the local Planned Parenthood. For all the talk of whether Democrats should abandon identity politics (they shouldn’t), or offer a strong economic message (they should), the basic challenge confronting Democrats in red states is they must find a way to appeal to more conservative voters while continuing and increasing their commitment to fight for their diverse base.

Thompson is an ideal test case, and we will find out how successful that message is. Ossoff, meanwhile, represents a different Democratic strategy – motivating the base into spurring unprecedented levels of turnout. Ossoff appears less inclined than Thompson to try and woo Republican voters. Instead of veterans and the Constitution, his website focuses on anti-corruption, healthcare, and civil liberties.

Georgia’s sixth has clearly energized Democrats nationwide, but can this race break Democrats’ history of low turnout for special elections? Will the nationwide fundraising energy translate into votes? Will Democrats nationwide volunteer for and donate to campaigns in red districts? Can Democrats greatly increase turnout in 2018? The next couple weeks will provide a window into Democrats’ future in red states during Congressional elections next year.

Photo: Kim Love/Creative Commons