The special election in southwest Pennsylvania came to an end on Tuesday night and, though the winner remains in doubt, the post-election spin is already writing itself.
Democrat Conor Lamb holds a slight lead over GOP candidate Rick “I was Trump before Trump was Trump” Saccone, but the margin is slight and has varied throughout the night – meaning political operatives and pundits are shuffling through talking points pegged to varying results.
The mixed messengers have, over the past few weeks, included the most powerful political pontificator in the land – President Donald Trump. According to Axios, he was, in the days before the polls opened, not-so-privately dumping on Saccone and his campaign, calling the Republican “weak.” Meanwhile, Democrats are still champing at the bit, prepared to declare Lamb’s victory (Lamb and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee got tired of waiting and did it before the official call) – in a district Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016 – a canary in the GOP’s congressional coal mines.
Here’s what you can expect to hear more of beginning around the time the coffee – or lunch – is ready on Wednesday…
Lambs wins! Republicans are doomed in November/Saccone was a terrible candidate
Dems’ take: Republicans have dominated this district for 15 years. Former Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned in October after it was revealed he’d asked his lover to get an abortion, ran his last two races unopposed by a Democrat. And now, this!
Saccone’s struggles, especially on the fundraising front, and eventual loss show that Trump’s unpopularity is pulling down his party, while enraging and engaging Democrats. This is the second consecutive high profile race, after the Alabama US Senate clash, in which Trump’s preferred candidate fell short even with the President’s blessing and an overwhelmingly red electorate.
GOP take: Saccone was a poor candidate, while Lamb was a very good one. Lamb also had the benefit of being able to tack to the center, basically running as a moderate Republican (“Republican lite”), because the unique nature of the race cut off any potential challenge from his left. Enjoy it now, Dems – November will be a lot more complicated.
Saccone wins after! Republicans’ problems have been overstated/Dems can’t get over the hump
GOP take: … is not much different than if Saccone loses. At least among party people. From Trump, though, there will be a declaration of total victory. That line from Saccone about being like Trump will probably end up in a presidential tweet. This past Saturday night’s rally will also likely be highlighted as the event that put a laboring Saccone over the top.
Also, tariffs. It goes something like this: The white working class sees a President on their side and, despite a whole bunch of spending by Democrats (and groundwork by local unions) to convince them otherwise, they sided with Trump’s guy.
Dems’ take: Again, familiar fare. Republicans have dominated this district for 15 years. No Democrat challenged Murphy the last two cycles and Trump (and Mitt Romney and John McCain before him) won it handily – in the 20-point range – in presidential years. It took Trump less than two years on the job to turn it into a toss-up.
Oh, and about the fundraising. Yes, it’s true Lamb outraised Saccone. But that doesn’t account for outside groups, which rescued Saccone (total bucks dedicated to electing him way outpaced Lamb). Republicans won’t be able to dedicate those kinds of resources to every endangered House seat this fall – and there are many.
Who cares, really?
The losing side will continue to drift this way as the hours pass on Wednesday. They’ll note that Pennsylvania’s congressional map is about to change, and in a way that favors Democrats. The winner on Tuesday will, if he jumps back in, be running for a different seat come November, perhaps in the state’s newly drawn 14th or 17th districts.
A lot can happen between then and now, but by January of 2019, Saccone and Lamb could be in the same queue, both waiting to be sworn in to the 116th US Congress.