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Political world's focus turns to Pennsylvania's special election

Win or lose, the fact that this race is a toss-up should make Republicans nervous.
A voter steps into voting booth, Nov. 5, 2013, in Philadelphia, Pa.
A voter steps into voting booth, Nov. 5, 2013, in Philadelphia, Pa.

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.

With this recent history in mind, it was a bit jarring to see this  Politico piece yesterday.

The chairman of Pennsylvania's Republican Party said Monday the special election in which Democrat Conor Lamb is running neck-and-neck with Republican Rick Saccone is in a "Democrat district," even though it was represented by a Republican for more than a decade and President Donald Trump won it handily in 2016."The other reason it's so tight is, you have to remember, this is a Democrat district, notwithstanding the fact that the president won this by 20 points," Pennsylvania GOP chairman Val DiGiorgio told Fox News on Monday.

Putting aside grammatical concerns -- I'll assume the state GOP chairman meant "Democratic" district -- it's a tough sell.

That said, there's no great mystery as to why Republicans are saying things like this. When Tim Murphy resigned in the wake of a sex scandal, GOP officials assumed the seat would remain in Republican hands. But the more Conor Lamb (D) proved to be an excellent candidate, and the more Rick Saccone proved to be an inept candidate, the more competitive the race became, to an extent few expected.

In fact, a Monmouth University poll released yesterday showed Lamb with a modest lead.

The result has been an awkward dynamic: Republican officials are pulling out all the stops, investing an enormous amount of resources in this decidedly "red" district, while simultaneously trying to lower expectations, trashing Saccone's skills as a candidate, and preparing for the possibility of defeat.

Indeed, the pressure seems to be getting to Saccone: at his final pre-election rally last night, the Republican told supporters that "the other side" hates the United States and God. Confident candidates don't usually fly off the handle like this.

So, why should voters outside of Southwest Pennsylvania care?

First, this could reinforce suspicions of a burgeoning Democratic wave. The fact that this district is competitive at all should be quite alarming to GOP officials, but if the Republican candidate actually loses in a district Trump won by 20 points, Republican panic will become more palpable, and we might even start to see some additional retirements.

Second, the race has become a test run of sorts for the GOP's 2018 strategy. Republican attack ads keep talking about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- whom, not incidentally, Conor Lamb says he opposes. What's more, the GOP initially thought it could emphasize the party's regressive tax plan as a way of boosting Saccone's candidacy.

This hasn't gone especially well. Pelosi's relevance in the district is a mystery and Republicans ultimately gave up on tax-plan advertising when they found it wasn't resonating.

Third, Trump has once again put himself on the line, endorsing and promoting Saccone, including headlining a campaign rally near the district this past weekend. If the president's preferred candidate loses -- after two of his preferred candidates lost in Alabama late last year -- it will further remind his party that Trump can't deliver votes for Republican candidates, even when he tries, and even after he announced steel tariffs intended to be popular in districts like these.

I'm sympathetic to the fact that local considerations always matter, and in this case, Dems have an excellent candidate -- a likable young Marine, who ran a mistake-free race and raised quite a bit of money -- and Republicans didn't. No one should count on this identical dynamic playing out the same way in districts nationwide in the fall.

What's more, there's no reason to assume Lamb will prevail, the latest polling notwithstanding. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me at all if media attention helped remind local voters that this race matters, which may very well help boost turnout among conservatives.

The bottom line, however, remains the same: win or lose, the fact that this race is a toss-up should make Republicans nervous.

Polls close in Pennsylvania at 8:00 pm (E.T.).