Last night, the Republican Treasurer of Kansas, Ron Estes, defeated James Thompson, a Democratic plaintiff’s lawyer from Wichita, for an open seat in Congress, by a margin of about seven percentage points, or about eight thousand votes. Just five months ago, Donald Trump won that district’s votes in a rout (his margin was about twenty-seven points), but an atmosphere of uncertainty had come to surround the race, just in the past couple of days, spurred by the broader ambiguities about the shape of American politics right now.
Early turnout among registered Democrats in the district, particularly in central Wichita, was very strong; progressives around the country, many of them coördinated by the Daily Kos Web site, sent money to Thompson’s campaign; and a leaked internal poll conducted by the National Republican Congressional Committee suggested that Estes’s lead was extraordinarily slight. At the last minute, the Republican group invested in television ads to boost its candidate. It wasn’t obvious, when the night began, whether there would be a truly stunning Democratic upset or something entirely mundane. The result landed somewhere in the middle, enough to suggest that Democrats may have a favorable environment in the 2018 midterms but not enough to indicate much about the degree of that favorability. At the very least, the election provided a helpful guide to the geographic extent of the resistance in south-central Kansas. It extends to downtown Wichita, it seems, but not to the Butler County seat of El Dorado.
The political territory in Kansas has been especially interesting during the past few years, in ways that intensified this campaign. The Republican governor, Sam Brownback, has spent much of the past six years pursuing perhaps the most radical conservative experiment in state government in the country. The state has so drastically cut taxes and services that it has had to routinely raid its own highway fund to pay its bills, and has been twice rebuked by the state Supreme Court for violating the constitution by severely underfunding its schools. Polls over the past year argue that Brownback is possibly the least popular governor in the country, and in elections last year moderates took control of the state legislature from Brownback’s allies, eventually rejecting the governor’s budget and voting to expand Medicaid in the state. (They did not have enough votes for that bill to overturn a veto.)
Thompson, who had been a Bernie Sanders supporter in the Presidential primaries, referred to his opponent as “Brownbacker Sam Estes,” making the race a proxy fight in two ways, over Trump and over Kansas. But the resistance to Brownback has been led by moderate Republicans—a school superintendent and retired military officer—who defeated conservative ideologues in primaries for the state legislature and were backed by two former Republican governors of Kansas, who publicly denounced the state’s recent direction. A different dynamic surfaces in a special election in a single congressional district in greater Wichita, in which the two contestants are not very well known, and where the default, as in so much of American politics, is a straightforward partisan preference test, R versus D.
There is a tenor to politics right now that does not have an obvious way to express itself. Trump is, by historical standards, very unpopular, and his highest-profile projects have either collapsed into chaos (such as his effort at health-care reform) or provoked broad popular outrage and judicial rejection (the travel ban). Progressives seem angry and ascendant, but until the midterm elections, still more than a year and a half away, there is no good way to test the extent of that ascendance. This spring, an unusual amount of attention has been focussed on a few special elections in open congressional seats; because Trump opened the seats by picking their occupants to serve in his Administration (the Kansas district had been represented by Mike Pompeo, who now directs the C.I.A.), they are generally in conservative parts of the country. Progressives have lavished astonishing amounts of cash on a thirty-year-old former congressional staffer named Jon Ossoff, a Democrat who is contesting an open district in the suburbs of Atlanta, and who now seems to have, against most expectations, roughly an even chance of winning. Similar, if somewhat more whimsical, hopes have been vested in races in Montana, South Carolina, and (until yesterday) south-central Kansas. The same Web sites that once tracked the accruing early returns for Hillary Clinton now map the Ossoff early vote; the same alerts about fund-raising totals pop onto phones; the partisan e-mails cascade. It can sometimes feel as if the Presidential election never really ended.
The heat of the 2016 campaign derived from its civilizational intensity, from the conviction among conservatives that America was on a precipice and from liberals that America risked handing a nuclear arsenal, of almost infinite destructive capacity, to a rage-prone reality-television star with no ability to control his own impulses. The electoral maps suggested a deep and uncomplicated national rift, with the cities, college towns, and prosperous suburbs on one side and everywhere else on the other. Trump’s voters, the left-wing urban theorist Mike Davis wrote this week, seemed “something like the American version of the Khmer Rouge.” But if that is right then it is a strangely intermittent force, emerging only every other November.
And yet, as pervasive as this social rift now seems, there is no good way to adjudicate it outside of the realm of electoral politics. Conservative ideas are almost entirely absent from popular culture, and from high culture, too. The media live in ideological silos. So, for that matter, do most Americans: communities tend toward political alignment, and partisan tensions are not often replicated in the decisions that towns and cities make about the kinds of places they want to be. It seems fitting that so many of our recent conflicts have taken place in airports, a rare place where, by necessity, the two wings of our culture collide.
Congressional special elections cannot handle the social weight with which they’ve been invested. They are too idiosyncratic for that, and too far from the center of things. Estes appeared in his campaign ads standing in the middle of a mossy swamp, with a bumper sticker emblazoned on his waders. Ossoff, not so many years out of college, appears in the Republican ads against him costumed as Han Solo, in outtakes from his undergraduate improv career. These are not principals in a civilization fight. They are gloves for shadowboxing.