James Thompson nearly flips Kansas’ 4th District

A progressive Kansas Democrat gave a traditionally red district a run for its money in a recent special election for Congress—and he did it largely without party backing.

By Jane St. John

In the unexpectedly close 2017 race for Kansas’ 4th Congressional district, James Thompson proved that a candidate doesn’t always need to win to shake up Washington. This Kansas seat went to Republican Mike Pompeo by a 30-point margin in the last race, so in 2017 it seemed all but guaranteed to go to State Treasurer Ron Estes, a Republican candidate openly endorsed by the sitting President. The Democratic Party even opted to withhold support and focus on other races, seeing this Kansas district as a longshot (if not a lost cause). 

That’s where some serious grassroots support came in—driven not by the Democratic Party, but by Ad Astra Group, a local Kansas agency that powers its clients’ campaigns using NationBuilder. According to Levi Henry, he and co-founder Casey Yingling formed Ad Astra because “[they] were frustrated with how party politics have been conducted in the state of Kansas. Everybody had kind of coalesced, but they had coalesced in the wrong way. They were losing races, important ones. Those at the top were sinking races all the way down the ballot.”

Leveraging their valuable relationships with activists and solid experience with NationBuilder, they felt ready to run campaigns independently from the Democratic Party and its digital tools of record. “We believed fundamentally that we could do it more responsibly,” Levi says, “and by more responsibly I mean we could produce a better product that produces wins—also not run roughshod over the very limited resources that they have to elect Democrats in the state of Kansas.” Since their launch they’ve run 9 races, winning at least 6, including one of the first Senate wins for the Kansas Democrats in more than 20 years.

It was with those key victories behind them that they set about building Thompson’s campaign from scratch. Levi says, “Thompson’s campaign from the delegate election process was done with the facilitation of NationBuilder. We were ranking our delegates, recording our communications, their dialogues, their support levels… We were at an advantage, because from the first day that Jim wanted, we were able to run.” Evidently, this wasn’t the case for all Democrats in the nomination process. As many as five were reportedly denied access to DNC data by the state party, which kept them from their campaign’s digital infrastructure during critical months of the race. Having their own separate and secure database was even more important to Ad Astra’s success than they realized at the time. “What I didn’t quite fully appreciate,” Levi affirms, “was that each one of these databases is on its own instance. That’s really key. It adds a lot of confidence and it gives us a nice piece to communicate to our clients.”

Having an independent platform for accessing their hard-won data was half the battle, but the bigger challenge was appealing to voters who typically didn’t turn out for Democratic candidates. In fact, a typical strategy Kansas candidates had employed in the past was to downplay their party affiliation as Democrats with a capital “D.” Though some assumed Thompson would take a similar tactic, he avoided that approach and leaned into his own progressive stance.

“We got accused a lot of times of hiding from being a Democrat,” Casey says, but “[Thompson] was a Democrat for working families, and he didn’t run from being a Democrat or being progressive. ‘Democrat’ was on his yard sign, and that’s never happened in Wichita before. So he actually did better than anybody that ever ran as a person hiding from being a Democrat.” Even before the Democratic Party joined Thompson’s efforts in the final days of the campaign, independent activists showed their support by contributing more than $200,000 in donations.

Casey points out that “in these states where the Democratic Party does not invest, the people getting work done here are basically resistance fighters. They tend to be scrappy, they like the fight, and I think that those types of organizers are able to bring in activists a lot better than the establishment party.” When asked for any advice she’d give to other left-leaning candidates entering the fray, Casey says, “while we don’t want that ‘Establishment Democrat’ name, it’s people that are not afraid to talk candidly about their progressive values. That’s what we’re looking for… I think that’s a good opportunity for Democrats everywhere as well.”

Images courtesy of James Thompson for Kansas
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