Democrat Conor Lamb appeared to eke out a massive – and massively important – special election victory over state Republican Rep. Rick Saccone to claim a southwestern Pennsylvania congressional district that Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Lamb’s apparent win – no matter how narrow – will surely rock the national political landscape. Republicans, already jittery about their chances of holding the House in November, will be thrown into panic by this result. And Democrats, already energized by the prospect of sending a message to President Trump, will be further convinced that November is going to be very, very good for them.
Here are seven takeaways from Tuesday’s vote in Pennsylvania:
1. The national environment is WAY tilted toward Democrats
This district is nothing close to neutral ground for the two parties. This is a seat Republicans win in anything but a truly terrible national environment. (Remember that Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned amid a sex scandal late last year, didn’t even have a Democratic challenger in 2014 or 2016.) There are dozens of seats currently held by Republicans that are less friendly for their side than Pennsylvania’s 18th. If all of those seats are made competitive by Trump’s unpopularity – and the energy of the Democratic base – then we are looking at the possibility at least of a very large Democratic wave building in advance of the November vote.
2. Donald Trump can’t save you
Saccone brought Trump in on the final weekend of the race in hopes of shocking the GOP base into action. But like Trump’s last-minute event for Roy Moore’s Alabama campaign, the President simply didn’t move enough (any?) votes. What the Pennsylvania and Alabama results suggest is that while Trump clearly has a strong coalition who will vote for him – see: 2016 election – he has not demonstrated the ability to transfer those votes to Republican candidates.
3. Money can’t save you
Yes, Saccone was a lousy fundraiser. And, yes, Lamb was a very good one. But conservative outside groups and Republican Party committees dumped massive amounts of money – more than $10 million – into this district to try to save Saccone. That’s five times as much as Democrats spent for Lamb. It didn’t matter. Money can help boost morale and excitement. But it can’t create it from whole cloth. And Democrats have that excitement organically right now. Republicans don’t.
4. The same old GOP playbook can’t save you
Republican ad-makers had two messages in this race: The positive message was selling the Trump tax cut. The negative one was attacking Lamb as a tool of national Democrats, especially House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. It didn’t work. And that’s important, because Pelosi had been such an effective bogeyman for congressional Republicans for so long. That voters in southwestern Pennsylvania weren’t swayed by the idea that Lamb was a vote for Pelosi (even though he had made clear he wouldn’t vote for her as leader) suggests that Republicans need to find a new way to peel wavering voters off Democrats running for Congress this fall.
5. GOP retirement watch
The possibility of another slew of Republican retirements – in addition to the 38 already heading for the exits – is now very real. Not every retirement is created equal, but if suburban Republicans – especially in Pennsylvania and New York – decide to call it quits in the face of a strong wind blowing in their faces, the chances for Democrats to win the 24 seats they need to retake the majority goes up, up, up.
6. Democrats are going to raise a massive amount of money this week
Winning this sort of seat at this sort of moment will convince every major Democratic donor who has been sitting on the sidelines that now is the time to get involved. And a victory like this one by Lamb will also energize the liberal, small-dollar-donating grass roots of the party. The more money Democrats can raise, the more districts they can put real voter ID and turnout operations into and the more districts they will then have a chance to pick up in a wave.
7. Candidates matter. Campaigns matter. But ..:
There’s no question that Lamb was a very good fit for the district – a conservative Democrat with strong union roots and a family name people knew. And Saccone – a state representative in his 60s – was the exact wrong choice for Republicans. Lamb raised a ton of money. Saccone didn’t. That matters. But Lamb running a well-funded and good race alone doesn’t account for a 20-plus point shift from Trump in 2016 to Saccone in 2018. In a neutral environment, Lamb loses this race – no matter how good a campaign he runs. That he won shows you how much impact the national political environment is having on these races.