Wednesday , March 14, 2018 - 7:55 AM
(c) 2018, The Washington Post.
National Republicans threw the kitchen sink to hold a House seat in Pennsylvania that President Donald Trump won by 20 points. But while the special election remains too close to call, Democrat Conor Lamb clings to a narrow lead and declared victory early Wednesday morning.
The media will focus Wednesday on what an embarrassment it is for Trump to lose in the heart of his geographic base of support. He went to Pittsburgh twice in the closing weeks to boost Republican Rick Saccone, including on Saturday, and tweeted his support again on Tuesday. The White House also deployed Don Jr., Ivanka, Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence and even Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to help.
The bigger reason that the savviest GOP operatives in town are freaking out right now, though, is that the results underscore the degree to which the party has been unable to home in on a message that can reliably win races in this environment.
Republican groups carpet bombed Lamb with commercials linking him to Nancy Pelosi, but Lamb largely defused these hits by running a response ad saying that he wouldn’t support her for leader.
Trump administration officials told reporters that they thought the tariffs could tip the race their way. Eighteen thousand members of the United Steelworkers union live in the district. But both candidates embraced the new levies, and the unions backed the Democrat because Saccone supports right-to-work legislation. So the issue was a wash.
Republicans tried to run on the tax cuts, which they’ve promised for months will be the centerpiece of their 2018 messaging. Commercials highlighted Lamb’s opposition to reform and relief for the middle class. When these spots didn’t move the needle, GOP groups stopped talking about them. Politico’s Kevin Robillard pulled the data to show what was on the airwaves: “For the weeks of Feb. 4 and Feb. 11, roughly two-thirds of the broadcast television ads from Saccone’s campaign, the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee mentioned taxes . . . For the week of Feb. 18, that dropped to 36 percent, and to 14 percent the week after. . . . Since the beginning of March, tax ads have been essentially nonexistent.”
These groups then hammered Lamb, a Marine Corps veteran and former prosecutor, on pro-sanctuary cities. Then they accused him of letting dangerous drug dealers get off the hook for their crimes with lenient sentences. (The dark turn the ads took in the final weeks foreshadows a particularly nasty fall campaign. If you live in a battleground and have young children, you might want to keep them away from the tube.)
Something similar happened in last year’s Virginia governor’s race. Republican Ed Gillespie initially made a proposal for tax cuts the centerpiece of his campaign. When that failed to excite conservatives, he embraced divisive wedge issues. Gillespie defended Confederate monuments, attacked his opponent on sanctuary cities and called him weak on the MS-13 street gang. Democrat Ralph Northam won anyway.
Money was essentially no object in Pennsylvania. National Republicans spent at least $10.7 million to help Saccone, more than five times as much as their Democratic rivals. They will not be able to do that in every close race this fall.
What’s wild about that spending is this race was almost entirely for bragging rights. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has struck down the Republican-drawn map as unconstitutional and ordered redistricting. The district won’t look anything like it currently does come November.
But with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Lamb has 49.8 percent of the vote to Saccone’s 49.6 percent. There are thousands of absentee and provisional ballots outstanding, and a recount is possible if the candidates are separated by 0.5 percentage points or less. Saccone, with the support of the NRCC, said around midnight that “it’s not over yet.” Around 1 a.m., Lamb declared victory at his watch party.
It’s always dangerous to overinterpret the results of any single special election. Remember, Republican Karen Handel prevailed in a much-ballyhooed special election last year in the Atlanta suburbs - in which both sides spent even more. But if Democrats can win in a district where they didn’t even bother to field a candidate the past two election cycles, they can triumph anywhere.
Moreover, there are not many - if any - real opportunities for Republican incumbents to score meaningful legislative achievements between now and November.
The GOP’s struggles are remarkable because the economy is so strong. A solid jobs report came out last Friday, and the stock market is still up big since Trump took office, even after the recent correction.
But it’s not puzzling what’s going on: Trump’s approval rating is hovering below 40 percent, and he sucks up all the oxygen. He did it again Tuesday, when he fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over Twitter.
Saccone wanted Trump’s help because it was such a red district. In many competitive House races, the incumbent Republican won’t. The Air Force veteran promised to be Trump’s “wingman” in the House. “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” Saccone said over and over again.
Lamb ran a cautious campaign, but he offered a clear contrast to the constant chaos that has defined the past 14 months. “People are so tired of the shouting on TV and in our politics,” Lamb said during his speech early Wednesday morning, encapsulating the tack he took.
Driven by Trump, Tuesday night’s returns offered another illustration of the problem Republicans have in the suburbs. The 18th District, as it’s presently drawn, stretches from the more well-to-do suburbs outside Pittsburgh into coal country, reaching Pennsylvania’s borders with Ohio and West Virginia. Everywhere moved toward Democrats, but many raw votes came from Allegheny County, which includes the closer-in suburbs. This reflects a motivated liberal base, as well as moderate women who are grossed out by Trump, his crudeness and alleged philandering.
From the House editor of the Cook Political Report:
Dave Wasserman tweeted “Story of the result: Lamb (D) & Saccone (R) both hit roughly the %s they needed in each county of #PA18. But here’s the difference:
“Allegheny Co. (Dem) turned out at 67% of ‘16 levels, Westmoreland Co. (GOP) turned out at just 60% of ‘16. Another pro-Dem enthusiasm gap.”
If this district’s composition had been just a little more suburban, Lamb probably would have won a decisive victory. There are 23 Republican-held districts that also voted for Hillary Clinton. Most are in the suburbs.
In the suburb of Mount Lebanon, dental hygienist Janet Dellana said after voting on Tuesday that she was outraged by Trump’s wobbly reaction to the deadly school shooting in Florida. She disagrees with his push for arming teachers instead of limiting access to semiautomatic weapons. “He flip-flops on everything, but in the end, he caters to the extreme right,” the 64-year-old told The Post’s Dave Weigel. “I am a registered Republican, but as this party continues to cater to the extreme right, they push me left.”
“We should be able to elect a box of hammers in this district. If we’re losing here, you can bet there is a Democratic wave coming,” said veteran Republican consultant Mike Murphy, a Trump critic, in an interview with The Post’s Robert Costa.
Republicans and White House aides are scapegoating Saccone, saying he ran a bad campaign. Indeed, the four-term state representative was uninspiring. He was a terrible fundraiser - forcing the national party to bail him out - and he ran a lackluster, disorganized campaign that never effectively introduced him to voters. But, but, but: He’s not a lightning rod like Roy Moore, the Republican who blew a special Senate election in Alabama in December. In every way, Saccone is a generic, standard issue Republican.
GOP operatives also say Lamb has a superb resume, ran a stellar campaign and didn’t face a primary to force him to the left the way that many Democrats will later this year.
“The reality is that plenty of mediocre, uninspiring candidates get elected to the House from typically-safe districts,” writes National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar. “The difference this year isn’t the caliber of candidates. It’s that Trump is driving the Republican party rank-and-file off the proverbial political cliff. At this point, there have been enough off-year elections, polling data and candidate recruiting successes to render a clear verdict: Democrats are solid favorites to retake the House this year.”
Eight months is an eternity in politics, especially in this tumultuous era when each day feels like a week. The underlying dynamics could certainly change. Trump could negotiate a grand bargain with the North Koreans, for example. On the other hand, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation could reach even deeper into the Oval Office. There will be an October Surprise. Who it benefits we won’t know until November.
-- Republican thought leaders sounded the alarm.
From the GOP’s focus group guru:
Frank Luntz tweeted “Whatever the outcome tonight, #PA18 is an extremely bad omen for the @GOP.
“Make no mistake: It is a leaning Republican district that is leaning no more.”
Luntz also tweeted “Even if they pull this out (#PA18), the @GOP is facing twin problems:
“1. They’ve lost some of their past support.
“2. Thousands of Trump voters are staying home.
“They can keep Congress if they fix one of those. If both stay broken, they will certainly lose in November.”
A former RNC communications director and House GOP leadership aide:
Doug Heye tweeted “Regardless of who ultimately wins, this is not a good result for the GOP. Look for more retirements to come.”
With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.
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