Republicans avert disaster in Kansas but 2018 trouble looms

Cruz rallies to keep Republican seat in Kansas
Cruz rallies to keep Republican seat in Kansas

    JUST WATCHED

    Cruz rallies to keep Republican seat in Kansas

MUST WATCH

Cruz rallies to keep Republican seat in Kansas 01:04

Story highlights

  • Despite a Republican victory, some GOP observers see warning signs in the special election
  • Republican state treasurer Ron Estes staved off Democratic and Libertarian opponents

(CNN)Republican Ron Estes beat back a surprisingly strong challenge from an unheralded and underfunded Democratic challenger to claim a special election victory in Kansas' 4th district on Tuesday night.

A win is a win -- and Republicans avoided the catastrophic outcome of losing in a congressional district where President Donald Trump won by 27 points last November. But in Estes' victory there are warning signs for Republicans preparing for the first midterm election of the Trump presidency in 2018.
"This should be a wakeup call to the Administration and the Republican Congress," said one Republican House member granted anonymity to offer an unvarnished view of what the special election meant. "The Democratic base is fully mobilized and unlikely to be defused. We will have to beat them. That will take motivating our base. So far we have not."
In Tuesday's special election, Democratic early vote was almost twice as large as that for Republicans, according to figures provided to me by a prominent Republican pollster. That's a sure sign of a base enthusiasm disparity. And in a district where there are typically twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, early vote was 44.5% Democratic and 43.5% Republican.
Republicans appeared to do just enough in the final days to drive their voters to the polls; a visit to Wichita on Monday by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as well as robo-calls from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and a $100,000 ad buy by the House Republican campaign committee may have done just enough.
Base enthusiasm is a problem for the party in power -- always has been, always will be. When you win and control everything, you get complacent.
But, Republican problems with their most loyal voters look to be exacerbated by two other factors: Lingering uncertainty about Trump and questions about whether a party that played the loyal opposition for the better part of the last decade can actually govern.
While Trump won the Wichita-based 4th district overwhelmingly in November 2016, much of that vote had to do with the person he was running against. Hillary Clinton was -- and is -- deeply unpopular in Kansas. But, Trump doesn't have Clinton to run against anymore.
In fact, the coming midterm election will likely not be regarded as a choice between the two parties' competing visions for the country but rather a referendum on how well Republicans have done when given control of the whole shebang.
The early returns on that electoral investment are not promising. Trump's travel ban, which remains popular within the GOP base, is caught up in legal wrangling and, before that, was prematurely rolled out and plagued with problems. The much-promised "repeal and replacement" of the Affordable Care Act never even came close to happening. Aside from the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, congressional Republicans have very little to take to their voters as proof that they have delivered.
"Due to the failure of House Republicans to pass repeal and replace, we have not proven we can transform ourselves from an opposition party to a governing party," said the GOP House member. "If we do not make that transition in the weeks and months ahead we become a minority party in 2018."
It's worth noting here that the Kansas special election -- like all special elections -- isn't a perfect lens through which to see 2018. For example, Estes was the sitting state treasurer in a state government run by the deeply unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican. (Democratic nominee James Thompson regularly referred to his opponent as "Brownbacker Ron Estes.") That won't be the case in many districts the two parties fight over in 2018.
National Democratic Party committees also spent nothing on Thompson's behalf despite the closeness of the race in its final week -- a strategy not likely to be repeated either. (Liberal groups bashed national Democrats for missing an opportunity although a case can be made that the national Democratic party swooping in could have been more hindrance than help to Thompson's chances.)
Caveats aside, the broad message from Kansas is this: Republican survived disaster, but even in their victory alarms can be heard going off.
Next week's special election In Georgia's 6th district -- a seat Trump carried by only one point in 2016 -- will be a more fair fight than this Kansas seat. Lose that one and what is a low murmur of concern right now will turn into something more like a stampeding panic.