To understand why Tuesday’s special election in Kansas matters in American politics, it’s important to remember that incumbent politicians run two kinds of campaigns — unopposed and scared.
After Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes won a narrow 7-point victory over Democratic candidate James Thompson in a congressional district that Donald Trump won by 27 points in November, there’s little doubt that many congressional Republicans are going to start running scared.
The near upset in Kansas, and the potential next week for a Democratic candidate in Georgia to win the old House seat of new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, is a tangible reminder of how energized Democrats are right now. In the midterm elections in 2018 there may be no factor more important than which side is mobilized and excited.
Maintaining that enthusiasm will be difficult for Democrats, though one can imagine that Trump will regularly lend a helping hand. But that is less important than the near-term impact of the races in Kansas and Georgia — and, in particular, on Democratic recruitment. If you’re a Democrat thinking about challenging a Republican incumbent, but fearful of wasting time and money on a fruitless effort, the Kansas result may just be the impetus needed to throw one’s hat in the ring. Knowing that you’ll have the enthusiasm of party stalwarts; that you won’t be facing a challenge in raising money; and that you have a clearly effective message of opposition to Trump is a pretty good starting point for a congressional campaign.
Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic strategist and pollster, told me that he and his colleagues have rarely before seen the number of political newcomers reaching out to them to ask about running for office in 2018. Usually “it’s a trickle of folks,” says Rosner. “Right now, it’s a flood.” This is of course anecdotal, but it’s consistent with the enthusiasm and anti-Trump fervor that is so clearly evident on the left.
Conversely, for any Republican residing in an even remotely competitive seat, the thought of having to wage a long and expensive campaign against some serious political headwinds is a political nightmare. It’s not hard to imagine that those on the fence about running for reelection may choose not to. Republican candidates being recruited to run against incumbent Democrats — or in open seats — may think twice. In a highly polarized political environment, candidate quality might matter less than in year’s past, but it’s not nothing. And having a roster of strong candidates with good name recognition and ample political skills could be the difference between Democrats taking a chunk out of the GOP majority and turning Republicans into a minority party in the House.
All of this is likely to have an impact on governing. Some GOP partisans and analysts will chalk up the unexpectedly strong performance of Democratic candidate Thompson to his effective campaign, a lackluster effort by Estes, and the drag of a deeply unpopular Republican governor, Sam Brownback.
But the more level-headed ones will understand that the biggest factor in Kansas was the guy sitting in the Oval Office and his deep and growing unpopularity. It’s not just that Donald Trump’s approval ratings are hovering around 40 percent. Among Democrats, Trump is not merely unpopular; he is loathed. But among independents, he is well underwater, and there is growing evidence that his numbers have slipped slightly even among Republicans. The more unpopular Trump becomes the more of a drag he will be on GOP fortunes. But even if his numbers remain unchanged, his mere presence is going to bring Democrats out to the polls.
It seems only a matter of time before congressional Republicans begin trying to distance themselves from Trump — in order to save their political hide. That will make it harder for Trump and the GOP to govern, which could lower his poll numbers even further.
Nineteen months out from the next congressional election, it’s dangerous to draw too much of a conclusion from one special election. But plenty of politicians are probably about to do just that. And, in November 2018, that could end up being a very big deal.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.