WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Democratic civil rights attorney running in the nation's first congressional election since President Donald Trump's November victory has made the race surprisingly competitive for a Kansas House seat held by a Republican for more than two decades.
The special election Tuesday between Democrat James Thompson and Republican Ron Estes to fill the seat vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo is being watched across the nation for signs of a backlash against Republicans or waning support from Trump's supporters.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted: "Ron Estes is running TODAY for Congress in the Great State of Kansas. A wonderful guy, I need his help on Healthcare & Tax Cuts (Reform)."
Trump won 60 percent of the votes cast in the 17-county congressional district that includes the state's largest city of Wichita. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both recorded get-out-the-vote calls on behalf of Estes, the state's treasurer.
All those GOP calls prompted Charlene Health, a 52-year-old homemaker and Republican in Belle Plaine, to cast a ballot for Estes.
"I wasn't even going to vote," she said as she left her polling site Tuesday morning. "I finally did. I realized this was important."
Lucy Jones-Phillips, a 31-year-old insurance representative and Democrat, acknowledged she doesn't vote in every election, but said she voted for Thompson because she wanted to ensure supporters of Gov. Sam Brownback are not in office. She was especially upset when the Republican governor recently vetoed Medicaid expansion.
"I can't stand Brownback," she said as she left her polling site in Belle Plaine.
But Thomas Hauser, 67, of Belle Plaine, a Republican who works in the information technology industry, said he crossed party lines in Tuesday's election to vote for Thompson. He also didn't vote for Trump in the last year's general election. Thompson appealed to Hauser in part because both men are ex-military but also because "I don't believe in the (GOP) line."
Readers of the liberal blog Daily Kos also were jumping into the race, donating more than $200,000 to Thompson in the final days. Chris Reeves, a Daily Kos member and Democratic National Committee member from Kansas, said a close race would bolster the party's hopes in other states.
In a sign of nervousness in the waning days of the campaign, Republicans poured money into the race to bolster Estes, who was criticized by Thompson for avoiding some events to which both leading candidates were invited.
"Republican Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly," Trump said in his minute-long call. "Our country needs help. Ron is going to be helping us, big league."
David Carron, 50, showed up to vote dressed in his U.S. Army uniform with his wife, Crystal, to show their support for Trump. The Belle Plaine couple voted for Estes.
"Everything in the conservative platform is good for us," he said.
Ray LaBoeuf, a 65-year-old Republican who is retired from the military and the aircraft industry, said he has known Estes and his wife for 20 years. He said people who believe Estes will vote in lockstep with the GOP on all issues will find that he is "a very independent-minded individual."
The contest also pulled Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to campaign in Kansas for Estes. Cruz told about 200 people who came to a GOP rally Monday that the Democratic hard-core base is going to show up for the special election.
"Our enemy right now is complacency," Cruz said.
Thompson spent the final day of campaigning talking directly to voters. His campaign announced Monday that it hit 20,000 in total donors, with most people giving small-dollar contributions.
Republicans have represented the south-central Kansas district since 1994. The district has been hard hit by the downturn in the agricultural economy and where battered aircraft manufacturing plants have shed hundreds of well-paying, blue-collar jobs. Wichita is home to Koch Industries, the company led by conservative billionaire political donors Charles and David Koch.
Trump's picks for top jobs in his administration and a California Democratic appointment have created five openings in the U.S. House, where Republicans have a 237-193 edge. Republicans are defending four GOP-leaning seats — the Kansas seat plus Georgia, Montana and South Carolina — while Democrats are protecting a seat in a liberal California district.