In the race for the 4th District seat, Republican incumbent Ron Estes and his Democratic opponent, James Thompson, are pretty much political polar opposites.
Estes is a conservative – fiscally and socially. In his first year and a half in office, he voted in line with President Trump about 94 percent of the time, according to an analysis of congressional voting records by the website Five Thirty Eight.
Thompson is a progressive Democrat of the Bernie Sanders mold: The Vermont senator and former presidential candidate endorsed Thompson at a campaign rally earlier this year.
A recent debate in Wichita, hosted by KMUW and KWCH Channel 12, highlighted the candidates’ political differences, on everything from health care to tax policy.
Estes and Thompson don’t disagree on everything: On guns, both support the 2nd Amendment, and reject efforts to ban assault rifles. Estes is a member of the NRA, and Thompson, a U.S. Army veteran, says he owns guns.
But on trade, Estes is supportive of the tariffs the Trump administration put in place on Chinese goods like steel and aluminum – tariffs Estes says are necessary to even the playing field, even if there’s some “temporary pain.”
“Unfortunately the process for doing that is starting off with tariffs," he said, "because that’s the only reason you can bring someone to the table to negotiate an agreement that can move forward.”
Thompson, though, is critical of Trump’s trade policies. He says the resulting trade war has hurt the 4th District.
“The problem that we have here now, though, is we’re picking and choosing who’s gonna be a winner or loser with these tariffs," he said. "Right now our farmers are the losers with these tariffs, because they’re gonna lose the ability to move their markets overseas.”
The two candidates are also split on immigration, an issue still looming over Congress. Thompson favors an “open arms, not open doors” policy that includes a path to citizenship for some immigrants already in the country, including young adults brought to the U.S. as children now protected under DACA. Estes wants to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, whether it’s with a wall or with heightened surveillance, and to make the legal immigration process more efficient.
Then, there’s the issue of marijuana. Estes is open to legalization, particularly for medical use, but says more research is needed.
“We’ve got a great example dealing with marijuana with the state next to us, Colorado," he said. "We’re seeing lots of signs coming out of that, in terms of revenue they’ve raised. But we’re also seeing some of the problems," like crime.
"We haven’t really seen what the law enforcement costs are, so one of the things we need to do as we continue to examine what’s happening in those things focus on what’s working there," he said."
Thompson, on the other hand, isn't hesitant. He says legal marijuana would bring in state revenue, and get people out of jail who are there on lesser drug charges.
“We need to legalize it," he said. "Get over it. Move past it.”
Throughout the campaign, Estes has suggested that Thompson is “too radical” for Kansas, that a socialist message won’t work here.
But Neal Allen, a political scientist at Wichita State University, said Thompson is giving voters in the 4th District a viable alternative to Estes. The district hasn’t had a Democratic representative in Congress since 1995.
“Thompson’s running a real campaign like the Democrats haven’t run in some time," Allen said.
Allen says despite Thompson’s grassroots support and strong funding – he’s brought in about $1.3 million; Estes has raised about $1.6 million – he'll struggle to win the conservative district. The most recent poll out of Emerson College in Massachusetts shows Estes winning with 63 percent of the vote; Thompson, about half that.
"Getting from 46 percent where [Thompson] won in the special election all the way to 50 percent is going to be tough in this district because the Democratic base is just pretty small," Allen said. "It would take a pretty strong Democratic wave to beat Estes in a district like this.”
Thompson came within fewer than 7 percentage points of Estes in the April 2017 special election, which Estes won with 52 percent of the vote. That was with a third candidate, Libertarian Chris Rockhold, pulling some votes.
This time, it’s just Estes and Thompson on the ballot – and voters will choose whether they’re content with their representative, or if they want to go in a very different direction.
Editor's note: This story was updated with the correct results from the April 2017 special election.