Tuesday night’s special election for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District has unexpectedly—shockingly—turned into a competitive affair, with Republicans scrambling to save a seat that they should never have had to worry about in the first place. The simplest way to appreciate just how safe this Wichita-area seat ought to be is to look at how well Donald Trump performed here last year: He absolutely crushed, beating Hillary Clinton by a 60-33 margin. That makes this one of the most Republican districts in the country, putting it in the reddest quintile of all 435 seats in the House.
So state Treasurer Ron Estes, the Republican candidate, has no excuse. Why should he do any less well against his Democratic opponent, civil rights attorney James Thompson, than Trump’s 27-point margin? Indeed, former Rep. Mike Pompeo, whose confirmation as Trump’s CIA director created this vacancy in the first place, won re-election by more than 30 points every time. And this heavily evangelical district isn’t trending toward the Democrats: Mitt Romney won by an almost identical 26-point spread in 2012. This is solidly conservative turf.
Yet Republicans are panicked: The NRCC jumped in with nearly six figures worth of attack ads last week; both Trump and Mike Pence recorded robocalls on Estes’ behalf; and Ted Cruz even came to Wichita for a rally on Monday. There are many possible explanations for this sudden closeness, but the bottom line, again, is that this race should have been a layup for the GOP.
And that’s why the thing to watch on Tuesday is the final margin—and how it compares to Trump’s performance. It would be an upset of historic proportions if Thompson prevailed, but even if he doesn’t, Republicans will have good reason to fret over future races if Estes doesn’t win in a blowout.
Even if Estes were to win by, say, 15 points, that would represent a collapse of a dozen points compared to Trump’s win. Just imagine if Democrats everywhere started improving over last year’s presidential margins by 12 points. A ton of seats would come into play that no one ever dreamed of contesting—more than enough to flip the House.
The GOP can and will try to spin the results and re-set expectations, but the math is the math. If Thompson winds up making this race closer than in ought to be, that will have significant implications for upcoming special elections in other parts of the country—and the 2018 midterms. Stay tuned.