Late in the evening of the special election in PA-18 Tuesday night, before it was clear Democrat Conor Lamb had won, I offered some reflections at New York on how shocking it was that this race was even competitive.
While we don’t yet have a clear winner in this election, we do have a clear loser: the Republican Party. This was, as I argued some time ago, the “no-excuses” special election for the GOP. This congressional district is strongly Republican and strongly pro-Trump. Saccone wasn’t a perfect candidate, but he wasn’t a disaster like Roy Moore, either: He had enough outside money and enough get-out-the-vote help from the national party and conservative groups to counteract anything Lamb could throw at him. Plus, he had massive support from the president, his family, and his administration, in an iconic Trump Country district that almost perfectly typified the Rust Belt areas that decided the presidency. If Lamb wins, it will represent a historic disaster for the GOP. If Saccone wins, it will still send a stark warning sign to the majority party in the House as we head toward November.
Republican message-meister Frank Luntz put it plainly this evening:
Make no mistake: It is a leaning Republican district that is leaning no more.
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) March 14, 2018
Yes, this is a special election; some might imagine that in a regular election, such as the one in November, more Republican voters will show up. The problem with that hypothesis is that turnout today was at full midterm levels. There’s no reason to think turnout patterns in November will be more favorable for the GOP, particularly given the massive Trump administration attention that this district got during this contest.
Another Republican rationalization we have already heard from the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito is that Conor Lamb is not a real Democrat (because he was nominated by a convention and didn’t have to win the votes of left-bent primary voters), and thus his performance does not show how real Democrats will do in November. But, by any standard, Saccone is a real Republican who ran more than ten points behind the normal GOP vote in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. And Lamb was lifted to parity with Saccone by the very same labor movement — battered and diminished as it is — that will be fighting for Democrats in swing districts all over the country. Dismiss labor, dismiss energized rank-and-file Democrats, and dismiss the ability of the Donkey Party to find suitable candidates like Lamb, and you’re well on the way to underestimating the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November.
Yes, a lot of things can change between now and then. But we are now seeing a regular pattern of Democratic over-performance in special elections — whether they ultimately win or lose — spanning the entire Trump administration so far. This election may just be another data point among many, but put them together and they unambiguously show big trouble for Trump and his party. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if they can’t make it there (in southwest Pennsylvania), they can’t make it anywhere. And it’s time they woke up and smelled the bitter coffee.
As of this writing, Saccone still hasn’t conceded, despite his cause looking hopeless. But it could be some time before his party recovers from this one.