Pennsylvania special election rattles Republicans
Republicans’ midterm fears intensified this week after Democrat Conor Lamb appeared to eke out a narrow victory in a Pennsylvania congressional district that President Trump carried in 2016 by 20 points. Lamb held a 627-vote lead over Republican Rick Saccone with only 500 provisional and military ballots left to be counted. Republicans said they would demand a recount. But Lamb’s apparent win is already reverberating through Washington. Pennsylvania’s 18th district, a heavily white and working-class area that includes some Pittsburgh suburbs, is so reliably Republican that Democrats didn’t even field a candidate there in the last two congressional elections.
Saccone, a 60-year-old state representative, campaigned as a conservative culture warrior who was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” But he faced a surprisingly tough challenge from Lamb, a charismatic 33-year-old federal prosecutor and former Marine with a centrist message. Republicans invested heavily to prop up Saccone’s flagging campaign, hoping to blunt Democratic momentum after a string of high-profile special election and gubernatorial defeats in Alabama, Virginia, and New Jersey. “We should be able to elect a box of hammers in this district,” said Republican consultant Mike Murphy. “You can bet there is a Democratic wave coming.”
What the columnists said
“Lamb’s breakthrough should petrify Republicans,” said E.J. Dionne Jr. in The Washington Post. Conservative groups spent more than $10 million on the race, five times more than their Democratic rivals, and President Trump himself parachuted in for an eleventh-hour rally. But the pro-union Lamb was able to win over blue-collar voters who have strayed from the Democratic fold. Even Trump’s tax cuts “had scant appeal.”
Democrats shouldn’t be too smug, said David Marcus in TheFederalist.com. Lamb supports fracking, says he is personally anti-abortion, and ran ads of himself shooting an AR-15. He “is about as close to being a Republican as a Democrat can get.” Is the increasingly liberal Democratic base really going to support moderate white guys come November? I sure hope not, said Bob Moser in RollingStone.com. The Democratic machine will now try to replicate Lamb’s win by backing nonthreatening centrists all over the country, “deflating the Resistance.” He may be a great candidate for western Pennsylvania, but “the future of the Democratic Party looks nothing like Conor Lamb.”
Republicans are blaming Saccone’s lousy campaign, said Josh Kraushaar in NationalJournal.com. But “plenty of mediocre, uninspiring candidates get elected.” The difference this year is Trump, who is poisoning the GOP brand in the eyes of swing voters. There are now 47 Republican-held House seats rated as “vulnerable,” and Democrats only need to pick up 24 seats to win the House. “The same dynamics are playing out” in race after race, said Matthew Yglesias in Vox.com. Democrats have outperformed Hillary Clinton by an average of 24 points in special elections this year. Yet Republicans continue their self-destructive alliance with Trump, “acting like Thelma and Louise holding hands as they drive the car off the cliff.”