Why Sedgwick County voted Democrat in the special election

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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) For the first time in more than 20 years, Sedgwick County went blue in a congressional election, picking a Democratic candidate over a Republican.

While James Thompson lost to Republican Ron Estes Tuesday night, just seven percentage points separated them. It's a far cry from the runaway races Republicans are used to seeing in south central Kansas.

It might seem this ending was predictable in the solidly red state, but local political analysts say it's sending out political shockwaves.

"The election results were a 'Wow,'" said Dr. Patrick Miller from the University of Kansas. "In D.C. they could very well be an earthquake. "

"It was a revolution," said Dr. Russell Arben Fox from Friends University. "It was a small revolution. Whether it grows remains to be seen."

Only seven points separated Ron Estes from his Democratic opponent James Thompson in great part because of Sedgwick County. It's the most populous county in the district and voters there went blue for the first time in decades.

"It wasn't a revolution that resulted in a change in the status quo. But it was a revolution that suggests that the status quo is changing," said Dr. Fox.

What these two political analysts are trying to figure out now is why. They're looking at the candidates themselves, specifically what made Thompson appealing to voters who don't usually vote Democrat.

"He's a civil rights attorney right here in Wichita," Fox said. "Yes, he's an Army vet. Yes, he has a lot of things in his background, and frankly, a lot of things in his political platform that can connect with traditional Kansas voters, particularly traditional Kansas Democrats. But this is also a guy who had taken on cases that challenged police over abuses of their authority."

They're also looking at what some call 'The Brownback Factor,' could the governor's low approval rating have affected Estes' ability to win support? Or, was the close fight a result of voters already tired of President Donald Trump?

"There's a part of this that we can tie back to the governor, a part of this that we can tie back to the president," said Dr. Miller. "But all we can really say with just one election under our belt is that probably both things played a role."

The answer may not come for a couple more weeks and after a couple more special elections in other states.

"If Republicans are under-performing in Georgia next week, we can't blame Brownback for that. And so we have the start of a trend there, if we see that pattern replicate, that points more to Trump," Miller explained.

But one thing is for sure, Fox says, the next election is likely to look a lot different here in south central Kansas.

"At a special election everything gets thrown up into the air and when it crashes back down you can focus in on the debris with a microscope," Fox said.

One of the things Dr. Fox says Tuesday night's elections show us is that there's a change going on in Kansas, specifically in the urban centers.

"We have a changing demographic in our city," he said. "Just like cities all across the United States are seeing demographics change. Cities are becoming even more diverse. They're becoming younger."

And that, he says, played into why an unusual candidate managed to take the Democratic nomination away from the party's preferred man six weeks ago and not only run with it but get closer to winning than any Democrat has in decades.

Dr. Fox says this change is about more than just Kansans upset with the president or with the governor.

"The people that really provided the muscle for the Thompson campaign, they were, by and large, younger people. They were people that maybe didn't necessarily have kids in Kansas public schools. They didn't necessarily fit the profile of people who were tearing their hair out about things that Brownback has done. They don't fit the profile of those upset with Brownback," Fox said. "And, you know, an awful lot of them are a part of the millennial generation that's sort of infuriated by, astonished by, and frankly, kind of entertained by President Donald Trump."

While Thompson has already vowed to run again in 2018 it's too soon to know if the engagement of his campaign supporters will last another 18 months, or if the Democratic Party, in Kansas and nationwide, will decide to support a candidate who crosses traditional party lines like Thompson.

"I'm not done studying the precincts, yet," Fox said. "It's going to take awhile to parse all that data."