Salina, Kansas. Photograph: Jeff Cooper/Associated Press
Another assumption about rural America is that its brimming with religious zealots obsessed with abortion rights. But, aside from agricultural issues such as farmers concern about water rights, Thompson found rural Kansans cared about the same things Wichita did: paying the bills, personal freedom.
Curtis said abortion is a juggernaut issue not because most Kansans are fixated on it a poll they did two months ago found that 51% of the district identified as pro-choice but because the Republican party is so good at getting pro-life voters to the polls.
Thompson was proud to be endorsed by and speak up on behalf of Planned Parenthood, local Black Lives Matter activists, and other groups with liberal social missions. But just about everyone he spoke with wanted to discuss healthcare, education, jobs.
I was talking about working-class people and understanding whats its like to try to put food on the table and make a decision between paying the rent or buying food, Thompson said. All those things that somebody that grows up poor understands.
Thompson, 46, may be new to politics, but he has lived many of his platforms issues in a way that creates a sort of expertise too often lacking among legislators. He grew up in poverty in Oklahoma City with a stay-at-home mom and his stepdad, a carpet-layer. By the time he was a teenager, he was out of his mothers care, living in a van with his stepdad and brothers.
He filed for emancipation, graduated from high school, and got a theater scholarship to the University of Central Oklahoma. It wasnt a full ride, and he struggled to make ends meet. Joining the army, he figured, would provide financial security, a paid education, a chance to get out of Oklahoma, the honor of serving his country.
Thompson went to basic training on 31 July 1990. Two days later, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Rather than being sent to combat, though, Thompson was selected for the presidential honor guard, which performs ceremonial duties at the White House and Arlington cemetery. Four years later, he enrolled at Wichita State University on the GI bill. He went on to law school at Washburn University in Topeka and has been a civil rights attorney in Wichita ever since.
Thompsons life experience has offered him a window into what he sees as the underlying issue of unrest throughout the country: a need for security. When security is lacking, the fear that might arise can be volatile.
Ive been in more fights than I care to remember, growing up as a kid in a rough place, he said. People have a fight-or-flight instinct. My instinct is always to fight.
While that individual gumption was essential to his climb from poverty to the middle class, Thompson does not support the American edict to pull yourself by your bootstraps.
It was progressive programs that allowed me to get out of poverty, he said. I had [free school] lunches growing up. We were on welfare a lot of times. I can remember standing in line for government cheese and butter. His college education, too, was supported by public programs such as Pell grants and government-backed school loans.
Thompsons liberalism is rooted in a desire for a more equal world in both economic and social terms.
I saw racism in my own family growing up, and I didnt like it, he said. He recalled a night out in Washington DC with black friends he had made in the military. To his astonishment, they couldnt hail a cab, but cabs came right to him.
His first civil rights case was against the Wichita police department, whose officer had beaten a black male teenager so badly he was in intensive care for six weeks. Thompson settled the case for just under $1m, and similar cases started coming his way.
It wasnt until Sanders populist run for president, though, that Thompson was inspired to run for office. With a 12-year-old daughter, Brownback for governor, and Trump newly in the Oval Office, he felt a call to action.
Before running as a Democrat, for years Thompson had been registered as an independent, then as a Republican in order to influence that partys Kansas primaries. He wished party labels would be removed from ballots so that people had to educate themselves about the candidates rather than blindly check boxes for their team.
Those labels of Democrat or Republican should be maybe a general guideline, but it definitely shouldnt define how you vote or define a person, he said. Because theres going to be lots of different shades in there.
One of the political lefts most important contributions to social progress is its persistent dismantling of rigid identity structures: racial stereotypes, strict gender roles, the validity of a gender binary to begin with.
The great political irony of the 21st century, then, is the childlike pride with which many members of the left trade in stereotypes about places like where Im from. Many progressive Americans rightly reject the notion that ones fate or value in society should be decided by race, gender, or sexual orientation. Ones place, however, has become the acceptable signifier for separating the righteous from the scourge.
The truth is that many blue people live in red states, and vice versa. About a third to two-fifths of American voters are thus.
So why dont doesnt a liberal person in a place governed by dangerous conservative extremists crawl out of what people see as her backwards little hole?
Out of love for home. Out of civic responsibility, even, to a place she knows is worth fighting for.
Besides, the brakes are probably out on her car anyway.
I told him to shut the pie hole three feet above his ass
In a recent episode of the podcast On Being, host Krista Tippett moderated a conversation between millennial progressive leader Heather McGhee and libertarian Tea Party organizer Matt Kibbe. Tippett asked the two, so opposed to one another in their politics, what good they saw in the others position and what troubled them about their own.
Kibbe admired progressivisms defense of community and care for all its members and admitted that a hyper-focus on personal liberty can appear uncaring about our most disadvantaged citizens. McGhee appreciated the libertarian movements activism against the mass incarceration state and lamented class-based disconnects within the Democratic party.
The animosity we presume to exist in people our political labels suggest as enemies often dissipates in the space of direct communication.
As for the medias role in framing the national conversation, journalist Faria Chideya called for more expansive storytelling during a recent public forum at Harvard University on race and class in the 2016 election.
Lets look more deeply into the deep social conservatism in the black and Latino communities, Chideya said. Lets look more deeply into how certain progressive ideals in working-class white communities meet up against certain regressive ideals.
The test for a relatively young nation being forced to grow up is whether it can recognize simultaneous truths.
Thompson shows the way for Democrats in areas theyve long failed at the polls by being a walking integration of categories: a gun-rights defender who goes hunting, a liberal activist, a commonsense graduate of the school of hard knocks, a fighter who doesnt mince words with wonky policy talk but shows up as an ally for his local Jewish community, people of color, the LGBT community.
At a recent Wichita rally supporting transgender rights, a couple of hecklers wearing masks used a blow horn to try to drown out event speakers. When Thompson went to the microphone, one of the disrupters tried to talk over him.
I told him to shut the pie hole three feet above his ass over the speaker system, Thompson recalled and cracked up. My director of communications asked me later, Please dont ever say that again.
But Thompsons vernacular would have gained the admiration of my straight-talking family, who rarely engage in activism because it often speaks a language they didnt get to learn.
At this perilous moment in America, the only victory to be had is not on the red and blue map but above it, not with clever strategies but through human connection.
Thompsons progressive, populist momentum in deep red Kansas where he respected people enough to knock on their doors and look them in the eye is proof of that. His showing at the polls echoed bipartisan resistance seen in recent months at town hall meetings and marches in seemingly unlikely places and suggested a playbook for Democrats aiming to reclaim districts vacated by Montana, South Carolina and Pennsylvania Republicans in special elections yet to come.
America is one place. Every state shares in her sins, and every state shares in her progress.
An hour after Thompsons narrow loss, from a bar a few miles from Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas, campaign manager Curtis asked that progressives, Democrats, and resisters remember what it felt like to almost break through to the other side that night that Thompson almost won.
Keep fighting, Curtis said. Keep going.