Republican officials had reason to worry about the 2018 election cycle before yesterday, but it’s safe to say their anxiety levels reached new heights overnight.
Democrat Conor Lamb is the apparent winner over Republican Rick Saccone in Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, according to an NBC News projection.
With 99 percent of the votes counted, Lamb was leading by 641 votes in a district long held by the GOP and one that President Donald Trump – who backed Saccone – carried by 20 points in 2016.
Lamb declared victory early Wednesday morning. Saccone has not conceded and his campaign is in touch with legal counsel.
I can appreciate why the “apparent” caveat is unsatisfying, but that’s where things stand. Given the best information available right now, it looks like Lamb has narrowly won this race.
And that’s not an outcome many would’ve predicted when the special-election campaign started. As we discussed yesterday, Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, south of Pittsburgh in the Keystone State’s southwest corner, can safely be described as a Republican stronghold. John McCain won here by 11 points in his presidential campaign in 2008; Mitt Romney fared even better four years later, winning by 17 points; and Donald Trump carried the district by a 20-point margin.
The area’s former congressman, Republican Tim Murphy, ran unopposed in the last two election cycles – because no local Democrats saw any point in going up against him.
When a sex scandal led to Murphy’s resignation, GOP officials assumed the party would have little trouble holding onto the seat. After all, a Democrat winning here would be like a Democrat winning a U.S. Senate campaign in Alabama.
Wait, that recently happened, too.
As the dust settles, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind:
1. Republicans went all out to help Saccone win. The Republican enjoyed a huge financial advantage in this race thanks to spending from outside GOP groups, and Saccone received extensive support from party leaders, including visits to the area from the president and vice president. As Republican candidates nationwide have probably noticed, it didn’t much matter.
2. Pennsylvania’s 18th was a test run for the GOP’s midterm strategy. Republicans saw this contest as a dress rehearsal of sorts, trying out the party’s 2018 message. What the GOP quickly discovered instead was that voters didn’t much care about the party’s focus on its tax plan or its obsessive focus on Nancy Pelosi.
3. A sign of things to come? In early 1974, with a scandal-plagued Republican president in the White House, there was a congressional special election in southwestern Pennsylvania. The district leaned toward the GOP, but Dems ran a young Marine veteran named Jack Murtha, who had fairly broad appeal. He eked out a narrow victory, and Democrats cruised in a wave election cycle later that year. It’s entirely possible we’ll see a very similar scenario play out in 2018.
4. Lamb was unique, but not that unique. GOP officials will likely argue yesterday was a fluke, since Lamb is generally more conservative than his party. There’s some truth to that, but the apparent congressman-elect is a veteran – and Dems have recruited more than a few vets to run this year. What’s more, Lamb ran specifically against House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) agenda, and many Democrats are likely to do the same thing in the coming months.
5. The Pennsylvania race fits into a broader pattern. Pennsylvania’s 18th. Alabama’s Senate special election. State legislative special elections. The evidence suggesting the prevailing winds are at Democrats’ backs is hard to miss, at least at this point in the cycle. Republicans may point to U.S. House special election wins in Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, and Montana, but even in those races, Democrats ran first-time candidates in ruby-red districts, and in every instance, those Dems exceeded expectations and forced Republicans to scramble to secure narrow victories.
Yes, there’s still some question about the final results in Pennsylvania’s 18th, but the point is, Republicans shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail for a district like this. They did, and as of this minute, they failed anyway.
If the number of GOP retirements suddenly goes up, we’ll know why.