Friday, November 02, 2018

Why the Estes-Thompson Race Matters to Me (Besides, You Know, Because it Will Decide Who My Congressman Will Be)

Let's just get this out of the way: my track record when it comes to political predictions is utterly abysmal. So I'm not going to try this time around. This time, I'm acting as much as possible as a historical-trend-watching political scientist--which I am not, to be clear, but which I can pretend to be on occasion. Like right now.

There are numerous races I'll be watching around Wichita and Kansas and the country next Tuesday--county commission races, state legislative races, the Secretary of State race, the governor's race, key U.S. Senate races, etc., etc. But the 4th congressional district race, right here in south-central Kansas, is of particular interest to me, and not just because I have my political preferences and because I consider one of the candidates to be a friend. No, that congressional race is important to me as a citizen and a student of politics, because of what its results may, perhaps, tell me about 1) the city of Wichita, and 2) the Kansas state Democratic party. Let me explain why.

So, the race for the KS-4 seat is between incumbent Republican Ron Estes and, for the second time, Democratic challenger James Thompson. The enthusiasm is all on Thompson's side, as benefits a man who has essentially been running non-stop for this seat for more than 20 months. (That includes the special election in April 2017 which put Estes in the place of the elevated-to-the-CIA-by-Trump Mike Pompeo, in which Thompson lost by 46% to 52%, and after which he promptly started his campaign again, focused on 2018.) As even his most fervent supporters will admit, Estes isn't much of a political animal, while Thompson absolutely is. Still, when you're talking about a district where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by 2 to 1, being a political animal may not matter much. Nate Silver's 538 certainly doesn't think so; they predict that Estes has better than a 99% chance of beating Thompson by nearly 20 points--which, if you look at the history of the district, is a pretty standard spread for this congressional seat. You have to go all the way back to 2000 to find a regular match-up where the Democrat lost by a less-than 15 point difference, and all the way back to 1996 to find a Democrat losing KS-4 by only single digits. Of course, that's what happened in the special election. But special elections are just that: special, with different expectations and dynamics at work in regards to candidate selection, campaign length, voter turn-out, and all the rest. Presumably, say the serious poll-watchers, that tiny Estes victory will almost certainly be replaced with a normal-sized one.

I'm not going to make a prediction--but I thinking that there will be meaning in the results, whatever they may be. As I wrote last year, the fact that Thompson even won the Democratic nomination in the first place is impressive, given the multiple ways in which he departs from the model of Democrats-That-Can-Potentially-Win-in-Republican-Kansas which the KDP rigorously maintained from the 1960s up to the 2000s, when Kathleen Sebelius began to suggest some different electoral possibilities. Thompson may be a veteran, and he may be gun owner and firm "2nd Amendment man," but he isn't rural, he's urban; he doesn't hearken back to FDR and the New Deal, but rather looks forward to Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All; he isn't socially conservative, moderate, or even just quiet on such issues, but instead is openly liberal on matters of abortion, LGBT rights, and a host of social justice and civil rights issues. He is, in other words, a product of, and seeking to build a winning electoral coalition out of, a set of Democratic voters that are quite common in America's "blue" cities (in contrast to more "red" and rural states), but were notably absent from the Kansas political scene while the consequences of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and numerous other social transformations changed the party elsewhere.

It seems likely that Sharice Davids--a progressive Democratic candidate if there ever was one--will beat Republican Kevin Yoder to take the seat in Kansas's 3rd congressional district, which is by far its most urban, sitting as it does right in the midst of Kansas City, KS, and its Johnson and Wyandotte county suburbs. (There's also a decent possibility that Democratic candidate Paul Davis will squeak out a win in Kansas's 2nd congressional district over Republican Steve Watkins--but that race isn't especially indicative of the urbanization of the Kansas Democratic electorate one way or another, as Davis is much more your traditional creature of the northeastern Kansas Democratic establishment, relying upon voters in Lawrence and at the University of Kansas to put him over the top.) Kansas's second-most urban district, though, is the 4th, centered right here in Wichita, the largest single city in the state; hence my curiosity about these developments. Less than 5% of my district's voting population lives outside of my city's statistical metropolitan area. Yet Wichita is, as I have written at length, a slow-growth (or no-growth) mid-sized cities, with all the confusions that entails as its metropolitan area entwines with nearby exurbs, commuter towns, and unincoporated rural areas. (Check out my friend Chase Billingham's comments on part of this confusion here.) All across the United States you have seen Democrats double-down in cities as part of he "resistance" to President Trump--but this is a development which preceded his rise. As far back as President Obama's first election, there had been a suspicion that the Democratic party could--often enough anyway--orient itself entirely around the more multicultural, often secular, often unmarried, usually more educated, definitely more progressive urban dwellers of America's cities. This has taken place with some success around the country. Could it take place here? Some see it as unlikely, given Wichita's decided un-cosmopolitan local culture. And yet, one might argue that no city, not even a non-agglomerated mid-sized one in a conservative rural state, can avoid the political consequences of contemporary urbanity entirely.

One election, of course, can't and shouldn't be taken as measure of something as complicated as socio-cultural and demographic change. And yet, parties, for all their limitations, are feedback mechanisms within the political marketplace--the success or failure of candidates does tell us things: about voters, about their preferences, and about how those voter preferences can be measured against other concerns. So as someone who loves Wichita, and wants to better understand its current predicament and future possibilities, the contest between Estes and Thompson is one I'm looking at so as to learn something about the people who live here--and in particular, about the number and kind of Kansas Democrats and moderate Republicans who live here, in this urban space.

Here's what I am willing to say. If 538 is correct, and Thompson ends up losing to Estes by about the number they predict--basically a 60%-40% split in the vote--then I think there would be good evidence that Wichita isn't turning blue--certainly not to degree that other cities are and have, and maybe not at all. Rather, it would remain a city with a large, but electorally limited, progressive urban minority, one that would have to focus its energies inward (on county commission or city council races, perhaps) rather than outward. That, in turn, would communicate important information to the Kansas Democratic party--namely, that, the immediate Kansas City-area aside, there just aren't sufficient metropolitan voters in Kansas (a state where, despite its much deserved rural reputation, nearly two-thirds of its people live in cities) to support urban progressivism, and the Democrats need to re-invest in more traditionally rural socially conservative candidates. And, finally, it would broadly suggest that Wichita (and maybe other non-agglomerated urban centers like it) need to recognize that the changes of American cities really can pass them by, necessitating us to think different about the political and cultural future of cities like my home.

But if Thompson wins, or even just loses by the same amount (or less!) than he lost to Estes in the special election, despite all the particular variables of that contest in comparison to this year's much more traditional campaign...well, I think that will say something about Wichita, something relevant to the political future (and in particular the Democratic party's future) in this city and this state. Not that Wichita will have become, or would be close to becoming, a "blue" city--that would take the work of generations of voters to pull off. But it would say, I think, despite all the excuses the Kansas Republican party could legitimately put forward as an explanation (it was the fault of the depressing legacy of Brownback, it was the fault of Estes's own lack of charisma, it was the fault of Trump's and Kobach's polarizing rhetoric, etc.), that Wichita's urban population--and in particular its immigrants, its Latinos, its gays, its single progression women, its African-Americans, its artists, and its non- (or non-conservative) Christians--had grown large enough in number and influence to genuinely move the political needle of south-central Kansas in a more progressive political direction. That's hardly a recipe for major transformation; Kansas, I am certain, will remain a mostly conservative state throughout my and my children's lifetimes. Yet it would be a victory (or a revealing loss) that would tell us something--or tell me something, at least--about Wichita's relationship to the progressive forces shaping the Democratic party all across this country.

Many people, for a variety of reasons, see Wichita as a city whose motor has stalled--a city that is not moving, no matter what direction you want it to move. Results like I'm talking about here in the Estes-Thompson race would be evidence of movement, of a city that really is, however slowly, changing. And that, I don't mind saying, is something I would be fascinated to see.

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