In the most recent special election, this time for a Pennsylvania House Seat, Democrats came up on the winning end just barely scraping by with a victory of less than 1%. Conor Lamb, a self-described pro-gun and pro-life Democrat defeated Republican Rick Saccone on Tuesday night. President Trump had given his full support to Saccone, and Pennsylvania’s 18th is a district that Trump carried by 20 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016. However, Republicans could not overcome Democratic enthusiasm so the district, which is slated to be eliminated, fell to Democratic hands. What does this mean for Democrats, and Republicans, in 2018? We shall soon find out.
According to Reuters, several Republicans are “sounding the alarm” over the PA-18 results, warning of dire days to come:
In an ominous sign for Trump’s Republicans eight months before national midterm elections, moderate Democrat Conor Lamb led conservative Republican Rick Saccone on Wednesday by a fraction of a percentage point for the House of Representatives seat.
The earliest the election result could be certified is March 26, according to a state official, but the final tally could be unknown for weeks.
County officials are expected to begin counting provisional paper ballots late this week, and military ballots next week, officials said.
Republicans have until the results are officially certified to challenge the outcome or pursue a recount. Saccone on Wednesday afternoon sent a fundraising email to supporters saying the “campaign is far from over.”
The election should have been a shoo-in for Republicans in a district that Trump won by almost 20 points in the 2016 presidential election. He campaigned for Saccone, who started the race well ahead of Lamb.
Republican Speaker Paul Ryan called the election a “wakeup call” in a meeting with Republican House members and pushed them to raise more campaign funds. He also urged them to do more to highlight tax cuts approved by the Republican-dominated Congress and signed by Trump.
Of course, anytime a party loses a seat, it’s a “wake up call,” but there are caveats in PA-18. As noted, Democrat Connor Lamb ran as a moderate and embraced several positions held by President Trump. He’s a clean-cut, retired Marine and former prosecutor. He also has the benefit of being a candidate who is younger, and more attractive, which always helps. In short, he’s a dream candidate for either party. On the other side, Republican Rick Saccone seemed sloppy throughout the campaign, and barely moved the needle on fundraising. The district itself tends to vote Republican, but voter rolls show that registered Democrats actually outnumber Republicans in PA-18.
Not every race in 2018 will featured a strong Democrat versus a weak Republican in a swing district, each race will have its own dynamics. Democrats ran a smart campaign in PA-18. and some of thee party’s top activists are taking notice that maybe playing to regional interests is better than trying to push a top-down progressive strategy in every district:
I disagree w/ Conor Lamb on several positions, but I don't live in this man's district. I would get crushed there.
I could win in Brooklyn, but Conor Lamb couldn't.
We have to have some give for the local culture and the actual voters from district to district.
— Shaun King (@shaunking) March 14, 2018
In other words, even for progressive Democrats who think Lamb is too moderate on most issues, a “W” for Democrats is better than handing anything back to the GOP. Democrats used to field more moderate candidates, especially from the Midwest (see Bill Clinton).
Republicans are working to paint the loss as the fault of a bad candidate in Rick Saccone. Democrats are painting the victory as a rebuke of President Trump in a district he won handily back in 2016. There is probably truth in both claims to an extent. However, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, “all politics is local.” If Democrats figure that out and realize why they lost to Trump in 2016, they might reverse the trend in 2018 with strong candidates like Conor Lamb.
As a national party, I’d rather be winning the seats I’m supposed to win rather than losing them, so the Saccone loss still stings for the GOP in 2018.