Decision 2017: Why (a special Congressional election in) Kansas matters

As a data analyst, it is one of JMC’s beliefs that midterm/Presidential election results rarely occur in a vacuum: available data (such as changes in voter registration, partisan primary participation, the composition of the early vote, and special election results) can and does foretell what will happen before Election Day. In this instance, a Congressional special election tonight in Kansas should be the source of some concern for Republicans going into the 2018 midterm elections.

First, some background information: JMC Analytics and Polling noted a month ago that five Congressional special elections had the potential to provide predictive value (as special elections in 2009/2010 generally did with the Democrats) about the mood of the voters in next year’s midterm elections. The second of those five special elections was in the 4th Congressional District in southern Kansas, in a district that favored Romney over Obama 62-36% and Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton 60-33%. While this district has been held by the Republicans for over two decades, it’s worth noting that it last “flipped” in the 1994 GOP wave, and was not initially on anyone’s political radar.

Tonight’s results, however, should be taken as “distant early warning signal” about the Republicans’ midterm electoral fortunes, and a more immediate concern in next Tuesday’s special election in the affluent Atlanta suburbs. Why ? While Republican Ron Estes (who is Kansas’ State Treasurer) won the race 52.5-46%, this was a race not on anyone’s radar until last week, and the fact that there was a seven point drop from what Donald Trump received in 2016 means that any Republican representing a district/state where Trump got 57% of the vote (or less) can not feel entirely secure this or next year. Because in addition to the drop in GOP support, it is the pattern of candidate support in this special election that should concern the Republicans: last year, the district’s rural counties voted 74% for Trump, but only 62% for Estes. And the district’s one urban area (Wichita/Sedgwick county) voted 60% for Trump and 48% for Estes. In other words, not only did rural areas provide more of a base of support for Republicans (as they did in the 2016 Presidential race), but a¬†consistent 12% drop in support relative to 2016 means that continued Republican defections of that magnitude could be disastrous in areas (such as the special election race in Georgia) that have more of an urban/suburban constituency and less of a rural vote.

And while it’s always possible that this result was an anomaly, the fact that the 6th Congressional District of Georgia (where next Tuesday’s special election primary will be held) only supported Trump by a 1 point margin while Romney carried the district 61-38% means that the Republicans can ill afford partisan defections of the magnitude apparent tonight in Kansas. Especially since the 2016 Presidential race seemed to rewrite the rules regarding¬†which constituencies could now be considered Democratic or Republican base voters.