Einstein put it best when he said, “Prognostication is difficult, especially about the future,” and who wants to contradict Einstein? So any predictions that are made based on the results of the April 11 special House election in Kansas will have to be quite tentative. Still, there are three trends that stand out in the aftermath of this election.
First, if candidates want to win an election the public expects them to campaign. Mr. Thompson, the Democratic candidate, waged a vigorous, energetic campaign in which he was at meetings and forums all over the district. Mr. Estes, the Republican candidate, waged a much less active campaign.
I have worked regularly in campaigns since 1964, and one lesson comes across clearly from all of this experience. If you do not campaign the public thinks you have an sense of entitlement to the job you are seeking, and most voters are turned off by candidates with a sense of entitlement.
Mr. Estes should have learned from Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 when she became widely viewed as having a sense of entitlement because of her relaxed campaign schedule.
Secondly, money remains important in winning elections. Mr. Estes had significantly more money available to him than Mr. Thompson, and so the fact that he won is not surprising. In most of the U.S. House races in recent decades the candidate with the most money wins. Now, on the question of money in this race not all the news is pessimistic. Mr. Thompson did not get much money from the national Democratic Party, but he was able, like Bernie Sanders in 2016, to raise a lot of money in small contributions. The ability of candidates to use social media and the internet to raise large amounts of campaign money in small contributions is a hopeful sign that our Republic is not yet a “kleptocracy.”
Third, the race is a potential warning sign for the GOP with respect to the 2018 off-year elections. In off-year elections, turnout goes down sharply. In the 2012 presidential election, turnout was 55 percent but in the off-year election of 2014, turnout was only 38 percent. So, in winning off-year elections, the key question usually is which party’s base of voters is the most motivated. In the April 11 election, both parties’ vote totals declined from what they had been in 2016, but the decline in the GOP’s vote total was a lot sharper. In January 2010, the GOP won a special election for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, a state that had not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972. That victory in 2010 showed a key fact about the political climate in 2010. The GOP base was much more mobilized than was the Democratic base, and so not surprisingly the GOP went on to a major electoral triumph in the 2010 fall elections. The Democrats had not won that seat in Kansas since 1994, so the fact that they came close in this special election could be an indication of problems for the Republicans in 2018.
As far as any predictive power for the 2020 presidential election, the record for the most part is that special elections tell you little about the next presidential election. Special elections are about mobilizing the base, but in presidential elections, one cannot win simply by mobilizing the base. Richard Nixon put it best when he said of the GOP, “You cannot win without the right wing, but you cannot win with only the right wing.” The Democrats are in the same position. They cannot win without the left wing, but they cannot win with only the left wing. So the April 11 House election in Kansas gives us no real indication of which side will win in 2020.
Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.