Settle down, Democrats
Political analysts billed the special House election as a definitive referendum on Donald Trump's presidency. Democrats insisted that a young, moderate nominee would spark the imagination and enthusiasm of the "Resistance" in a previously safe GOP seat. Media outlets breathlessly covered the campaign on a moment-by-moment basis. The nation waited with bated breath as the returns came in.
I'm not talking about Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district. I'm talking about last year's special election in the Georgia district of former Rep. Tom Price, who had begun a short-lived stint as health secretary under President Trump a few months earlier.
Let's assess how important that Georgia race really was: Can you recall the name of either candidate without googling it? Even if you do remember, let's be honest and admit that no one seriously still holds up the Republican's victory (or the Democrat's narrow loss) as proving much of anything about the upcoming midterms.
The same should hold true for Tuesday's outcome in the special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district. Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have narrowly edged out Republican Rick Saccone in a district that went for Trump by 20 points, which certainly gives Republicans a headache they didn't need and Democrats a reason to brag.
Does that translate to a blue wave in November, though? Almost certainly not. (Although that doesn't mean a blue wave isn't coming in November, either.) Using special elections as a harbinger for regularly scheduled contests ignores significant differences between the two, and the singular nature of most special elections.
Here are three key reasons to resist the urge to either pop champagne for Democrats or declare the GOP dead — at least on the basis of PA-18.
1. This district won't even exist in November
The Pennsylvania state Supreme Court threw a wrench into the midterms last month, imposing a new congressional map on the legislature on the basis of partisan gerrymandering. The legal basis for this edict is still getting challenged, but if it stands, Republicans would lose several seats anyway — and PA-18 as it's currently configured will no longer exist.
Both Saccone and Lamb may end up running in November in different districts, and both may win their races if they do. Forget the special election being predictive on a national basis; it may not even be predictive for Pennsylvania.
2. Special elections happen in a resource vacuum
Special elections allow parties to concentrate all their resources on one contest. In regular elections, it doesn't work that way. Republicans and Democrats have to compete in 435 House races and 30-some Senate races every second November. They inevitably have to make tough decisions on resource allocations. That's just not so in one-off special elections.
Heading into November, Republicans have a distinct edge in resources and infrastructure. The party committees dedicated to the Senate and House have remained competitive with each other, but the RNC has outperformed the DNC by a wide margin. The RNC has over $40 million cash-on-hand after setting a new record for off-year donations, while the DNC barely has enough cash (a little over $6 million) to cover its existing debt. The RNC has spent its money on expanding its ground operations in 25 key states for the midterms in a project that goes back to the 2014 cycle. Democrats are still struggling to rebuild the infrastructure that former President Barack Obama cannibalized for his 2012 campaign.
Republicans are coming into this cycle with a large organizational advantage and a lot more cash to operate it. That may not be enough to overcome any drag that Trump's unpopularity creates, but it reminds us that Democrats may well be unable to match resources in a regular election in the way they did in a special election.
3. Candidates matter
Rick Saccone was a well-known Republican in this district, but he made some key mistakes, especially by highlighting the "right to work" message in a union-heavy constituency. However, the key point about candidates in this race was how different Conor Lamb is from mainstream Democratic Party messaging. Lamb refused to criticize Trump, for instance, declared his support for the Second Amendment, hailed the economic benefits of the tax cut (if not the cut itself), and distanced himself from Nancy Pelosi.
House Speaker Paul Ryan later joked that a conservative won the election in PA-18. He's not that far off the mark. Democrats want to make the midterms a referendum on Trump, gun control, impeachment, and their opposition to Trump's tax cuts. It's tough to see Lamb's win as a harbinger for Democrats when he won by contradicting some of the campaign message they plan to use. Lamb had the advantage of running while Democrats could tune their message specifically to help him out. Would he have won in November with Democrats hammering those themes on national ad campaigns and talking-head shows?
Don't mistake this for a sunny take on PA-18's election. Republicans should have won that election, and might have with a better candidate, a better message, or both. Trump's rally fell short of bringing victory, which should be the most concerning aspect of the loss for the GOP. Historically speaking, the party out of power usually wins House seats in the first midterm of any president, and Democrats are certainly in range for enough of a swing to regain control of the lower chamber. However, all of that was just as true before the special election, and is no more and no less true on this side of it.
We have more than seven months to go before the midterms, and lots of things will change between now and November. Let's see if anyone recalls the names of these candidates at that time.