It’s Never Too Early To Start To Panic

Kansas had a special election on Tuesday.

Mike Pompeo was the guy who used to have the seat representing Kansas-4. He went off to head the C.I.A. for President Trump. In his absence, Kansas had a special election to ensure that KS-4 had a representative. James Thompson ran on the Democratic ticket, Ron Estes ran on the Republican ticket (some Libertarian nutball ran on the Libertarian ticket).

This is a district that had Trump win by about 27 points. Pompeo got 61%. The Democrat got 29.4%. Some Independent candidate got 6.8%. Some Libertarian nutball (a different one!) got 2.8% last November.

This time, the election was Ron Estes with 52.5% and Thompson with 45.7% (the Libertarian nutball got 1.7%).

Now, there are a lot of dynamics going on with this particular election. There’s Brownback’s disasterous economic policies. There’s the whole Donald Trump thing. But there is also the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) decision to not push the Democrat in this particular election. It ran a phone bank on Thompson’s behalf in the last few days but didn’t otherwise really insert itself into the election. The argument the DCCC gave on its own behalf was something to the effect of (and I’m paraphrasing this) “we couldn’t insert ourselves into the election because if we did, that would have awakened the Republican Machine and they would have campaigned against the DCCC and Thompson and so we wanted to stay under the radar in order to give Thompson a chance.” (Read the statement here.)

So there are a million takes on this election, each hotter than the last.

“This election was a referendum on Brownback, not on Trump.”
“This election proves that Republicans have nothing to worry about.”
“This election proves that Democrats have gained 15 points in the polls without even doing anything!”
“This election proves that Trump is unpopular on a national level!”
“This election proves that Democrats still have no idea on how to allocate resources!”
“Special elections prove nothing because only crazy people vote in them!”

I see every reason that Republicans should look at this election and start stocking up on extra-strength Pepto-Bismol before 2018. I see every reason that the Democratic base should look at this and start screaming that the DCCC (among others) has learned *NOTHING* from how the DNC demoralized everybody to the left of Jeb Bush throughout 2016. I see every reason to think that the Republicans are not only not going to hold the line in 2018 but lose the House in a wave election. I see every reason to think that Democrats are, once again, going to get slaughtered and the Democratic Leadership will have zero understanding of why they didn’t win that many seats despite the number of upvotes they got on Reddit.

I see every reason to think that this special election had more to do with Kansas and the goofiness going on in Kansas (and specifically KS-4) than anything, at all, to do with a National issue and there’s no reason to think that there’s any useful information for anybody in this election.

But there was a special election for a congressional seat in Kansas. This was a district that the Republicans won by double digits just a few short months ago… and the Republicans only (should that word be in air quotes?) won it by single digits this time.

Perhaps something that will give us additional tea leaves to read: There’s a special election in Georgia next week. Tom Price went off to DC to become Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. Back in November, Tom Price beat Rodney Stooksbury 61.6% to 38.4%.


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55 thoughts on “It’s Never Too Early To Start To Panic

    • Howard Dean was the chairman of the DNC from 2005-2009.

      During that period, Democratic seats in the House, Senate, and assorted state seats went from “Permanent Republican Majority” to “Permanent Democratic Majority”.

      I believe that Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy was responsible for a reasonable chunk of these victories (though, I’ll grant, Bush Fatigue and the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Barack Obama was responsible for the rest of it).

      But when Dean left, the 50 state strategy was abandoned.

      Dean was replaced by Tim Kaine, Donna Brazile, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and then Donna Brazile again during a period in which the Democratic seats in the House, Senate, and assorted state seats went from “Permanent Democratic Majority” to “Permanent Republican Majority”.

      My personal take is that the DCCC effed up.

      And if they continue to eff up, we’ll be sitting in 2018 saying, once again, “well, you have to understand what the term ‘margin of error’ means when it comes to the polls…”

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      • I don’t really believe in campaigns.

        Like, they clearly exist, and they probably have some marginal impact on voting, but 2006 and 2008 look an awful lot like a party grabbing seats off of an unpopular incumbent against a backdrop of war and recession. My hypothesis is that DNC Chair Baked Potato would have done about the same as Dean (assuming we could get the potato to sign paychecks or whatever, which I guess might be a problem for a cooked tuber).

        The campaign-focused answer also runs into the problem of explaining 2010. Running, for the most part, the same candidates in the same districts as in 2006 and 2008, Democrats took a beating. Maybe there is some version of “abandoning the 50 state strategy” that would explain it? I’m not really sure what the theory is supposed to entail, so I don’t know where we would look.

        Anyhow, Democrats shouldn’t exactly be happy about not winning an election, but Republicans should be pretty nervous about squeaking out a win in a seat well into the “safe” category. At the same time, maybe this really is just a blip from local conditions (though that possibility also shouldn’t really be that comforting to Republicans, since they created the local conditions).

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        • By one conservative writer’s estimate, a 2018 midterm that went along the lines of this election would give the Democrats a 314 seat majority in the House.

          Presumably a normal midterm is not going to go as badly as a special election in this environment, but I’d still be getting more concerned were I a Republican in an at all competitive district.

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          • If Republicans keep doing what they’ve been doing, (fumbling on healthcare reform is a good example of what they’ve been doing) and fail to give their regular voters a reason to turn out and support them, then they’re going to get a big enough shellacking that we might see a return to Speaker Pelosi in 2019.

            They seriously need to look into the whole “what laws could we write that would pass *AND* be popular?” thing.

            Off the top of my head, the only thing that I can think of is rescheduling marijuana, but I think about rescheduling marijuana a lot.

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        • The most important thing the various Democratic committees can do is make sure they have a competent and serious candidate running in every possible seat. Not easy to do — how do you get acceptable candidates to run for seats in R+20 districts? It’s like winning the lottery — you have to hope some massive unknown event tanks the GOP candidate after the primary.

          Not because there’s a vast pool of R+5 or R+10 districts that would swing Democratic if the “right candidate” was there. But because sometimes you have big waves and big turnout, and you need people in place for it.

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  1. I agree with you on the abandonment of the Dean strategy.

    That being said, I think this district was so safely GOP that 45 percent is the best we can hope for in the District.

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      • Lee,
        No, no, and no. Dean’s strategy was to spend peanuts everywhere. Literal peanuts — did you see the pizza guy running for NJ rep? Peanuts.

        Then he pulls a few wins out of Idaho (ASSHOLE Republican, seriously read the dkos posts, the Republicans hated him), and a few places like that by ramping up on the two Reps a year that Screw The Pooch (lit.).

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  2. I don’t know much about democratic politics and all that nonsense… but I do think the quote from the democratic candidate about the DCCC’s contention that they were acting in his best interest to be telling in some way. Maybe.

    Thompson dismissed his party’s failure to invest the race as “establishment thinking.”

    “A lot of people don’t want to be proven wrong,” Thompson told The Huffington Post on Sunday. “If they were in Kansas, they’d have a better idea of what’s going on.”

    His issues page is interesting too… echoes of Trump would be the musical soundtrack.

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    • From HuffPo:

      Thompson has performed better than expected in the race because he stayed under the radar, the official added.

      “Now that the race is being nationalized, and the involvement of a national party committee can’t be used against him, we don’t want Thompson to go unprotected,” the official said, adding that the race provides an opportunity to test messaging for future elections.

      Dang ole DCCC. They think the best way to help elect Democratic candidates is to refrain from publicly supporting them. Sad! It’s an unconventional approach, I’ll give em that. Are they thinking outside the box, or is it just lazy incompetence?

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    • It seems a tacit acknowledgment that there isn’t enough room in the Democratic Tent for there to be a Democrat who would appeal to Kansans.

      Or, to put a finer point on it, a Democrat who would appeal to Kansans would not be acknowledged as a Democrat by the folks who run the National Democratic party.

      “That guy is a DINO”, they might say, about the guy who only votes with them 66% of the time.

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      • Well, I was wondering that, but I’m not competent to judge.

        On the one hand he ticks the LGBT issue in bold so too Gun rights; Abortion he soft pedals by not mentioning it; instead going with women’s health, privacy, and keeping it underneath Constitutional rights… like the 2nd amendment. After that he’s basically an Economic Populist more or less of the Steve Bannon type (tee hee).

        To ‘s point it seems more a difference in emphasis than an actual walking away from the national line; if that constitutes DINO and the DCCC won’t back candidates of that sort (which I’m not convinced is the case)… then I foresee ill omens ahead for the Democratic party. Not sure if the omens are iller than Trump; he’s a walking basket of omens.

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    • His issues page is interesting too… echoes of Trump would be the musical soundtrack.

      Bernie took Kansas 2-1 over Clinton in the primary. As anecdata I know a couple Trumpers that couldn’t stand her but really liked Bernie as well.

      A successful Dem candidate here likely needs to be a lot more like Sanders than Clinton; economic populist, support gun rights, strong for ag stuff, and just try to avoid abortion and sex stuff. Basically a Blue dog.

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      • Bernie is far more pro-welfare state than the Blue Dogs were. The reason why the ACA is so complicated is that Obama, Pelosi, & Reid needed to take 13 months to cobble together something that would please the Single-payer wing and the Blue Dog wing who found single payer to be be a problem.

        The big issue with what you wrote is that the large base for the Democratic Party is urban and driven by issues of race and/or sex and/or sexuality. The Democratic Party can’t ignore this stuff or downplay like they could in the 1990s. FWIW I am still skeptical of the Bernie could have won arguments* and largely do think that people wish to throw all the uncomfortable structural racism stuff under the rug.**

        *It is possible but the problem with hypotheticals is that they tend to prove priors than anything else.

        **I think one of the greatest pundit myths/moronocies that we go through in nearly every election is that most voters are up for grabs every year and can be convinced by a resounding battle of ideas. Most voters seem to be pretty partisan one way or another. Questions about people openly voting for “white identity” instead “small government” are depressing in their implication. I tend to believe that racism is something that can be nuance, subtle, possibly subconscious but there were plenty of times Donald Trump and Company said (and still say) the quiet parts really loudly. But we can’t discuss what makes someone a racist or not except those who qualify by the most cartoonish terms possible and even then we have to pretend that they are magically reachable somehow.

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        • I’m saying that the kind of Democrat that can win in Kansas doesn’t look exactly like the kind of Democrat that wins in New York or California. That doesn’t mean going against the national party so much as a different emphasis. It’s sorta hard to win in a largely white, rural state campaigning as a champion of urban minorities.

          Frankly, Saul, I think you overstate the degree that overt racism played in this last election, or at least I hope you are. There’s territory that exists between “actively racist” and “deeply concerned about equality issues”. A good chunk of that territory consists of people who are economically populist while not particularly caring much either way on race issues.

          I can remember back to the 06 and 08 election seasons when Bush was sinking, I would see a lot of yard signs for Republican candidates that didn’t contain the word Republican or an elephant in a bid to distance themselves from the national party.

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  3. When pregaming next week’s GA contest, keep in mind that the GOP has 2 or 3 credible candidates & a few other straphangers, while the Dems are all rallying behind a single guy – but if no one gets to 50% the top two go head to head in a runoff.

    So GA is more than likely going to indicate nothing next week, but if it does show something (i.e. the Dem cracking 50.1%) that is indeed a big effin deal.

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  4. Ack, too many options. If you’d given just two or three possible takes, I probably would’ve picked one, but with this many, I’m just going to be overwhelmed and walk away without choosing any of them.

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  5. So Trump tweeted some rah-rah, we really kicked ass in Kansas nonsense and 538 responded with something along the lines of, Yeah, if you do that well in 2018 you’ll only lose at least 30 seats in the House and four in the Senate.

    Anyway, I’m loathe to speculate too much on what a special election like this portends for 18 except to note that it’s more similar to an off-year race than a Presidential season.

    Brownback is unpopular as hell but that’s not really any change from November, so the only real material change is 2 1/2 months of Trump in the Oval Office.

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    • I should add that I don’t know a lot about the general political mood in the 4th district — it’s at the opposite corner of the state — except that it contains Wichita which makes it the most likely Dem pickup district. A few years back we actually had a split 2-2 delegation with a northeast district going blue as well, though that was short-lived.

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    • Since November, Brownback vetoed Medicaid expansion and Ryan & Co. took a run at rolling back the ACA. Wasn’t it sometime in the last couple of years that someone in state legislative leadership there in Kansas abruptly became much less opposed to the Medicaid expansion when the hospital in his rural home town closed? How many more are likely to close by November 2018? I notice that the Kansas Hospital Association’s home page has one of those running counters showing how much federal money the state hasn’t gotten because they haven’t done the expansion ($1.8B and counting).

      So far, Trump has been a sideshow. The big ring is in Congress, and I think people are starting to realize that.

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      • For me personally, the single most important agenda item on the GOP table is replacing the ACA. It’s the one issue that consistently gets all my attention. And I don’t think I’m alone: a couple weeks ago the ACA reached 50+% support for the first time, and interestingly, that was right after the Ryan plan was advanced and subsequently shot down, a proposal that had 17% support.

        My own guess is that Trump’s highest priority for HCR is a bill that saves 900 billion in federal spending: he needs that to enact his tax plan. And to me that means Ryan Plan Redux. If they pass it there’s just no predicting how badly the GOP is going to get hammered in ’18.

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      • Yep. And the really important thing to note here is that there actually was a bill that passed both houses of assembly for him to veto. That’s due to both the harder line Republicans taking a hit from more moderate Republicans in the primary and from Democrats picking up some seats as well. Then the override only failed by four votes in the Senate.

        Kansas has always been reliably Republican and likely will be for the foreseeable future. But it’s historically been a more moderate, practical, and less ideological kind of Republican and Democrats weren’t shut out. I remind all of you that eight years ago Obama tapped our Democratic Governor Kassebaum for HHS Secretary, which left an opening for Brownback to move from the Senate to the Governor’s mansion. I’ve never quite forgiven him for that (and I seriously wonder how Nancy feels about it now too).

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  6. So there’s this: in 2016 in Sedgwick county (Wichita), 104,353 voted Trump vs. 69,627 for Clinton. In the special, 39,419 turned out for Estes while 41,293 turned out for Thompson. That’s a pretty significant drop-off in numbers for the Republicans–more than half–while the Democrats only dropped about a third. Obviously, we’re not expecting voter turnout in an election like this one to be comparable to a national election, but could this be interpreted as a sign of apathy and disillusionment on the right and a deeper commitment on the left?

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  7. I’m struggling with criticizing the DNC on this. If they had sunk a bundle of cash into this race and ended up with a 2% margin loss instead of a 6.8% margin loss would that have been worth the resources?
    I mean yeah if you interpret it as “We’re not backing this candidate because he’s too far to the right and too culturally conservative for us so fish him.” that’d be a HUGE problem but is there anything to back up the allegation that they’re thinking that rather than “We don’t think throwing money into this race would get us a win so we’re not throwing the money in”?

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  8. You might want to tell Trump that the Dems didn’t put any money or effort into the campaign. He tweated out that the GOP prevailed despite all of the Dems money and predictions of victory.

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