Washington (CNN)House Republicans got a stern warning Wednesday morning to take the results of a Pennsylvania congressional race as "a wake-up call" ahead of November's midterm elections.
'This is a wake-up call': Republicans warned after close Pennsylvania race
House Speaker Paul Ryan and top campaign lieutenants said at a closed-door GOP meeting that the down-to-the-wire outcome in what had been a reliably red district shows that Democratic enthusiasm is real and all incumbents need to be prepared for competitive races.
"This is a wake-up call," Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told GOP lawmakers gathered for the private caucus meeting. "If you're getting outraised, this is a wake-up call. Prepare to bear down."
Holding onto a narrow lead, Democrat Conor Lamb declared victory in the wee Wednesday morning hours as his special election match-up against Republican Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania's 18th District went down to the wire and the final absentee and provisional ballots were being counted.
For Republicans, that the race was close at all is alarming: President Donald Trump won the district by 20 percentage points in 2016, and the GOP had pulled out all the stops to prevent an embarrassing loss, including dispatching Trump to campaign there twice and spending heavily on the race.
Stivers told Republicans that "our voters turned out, but you can't get outspent five to one."
It was a jab at Saccone's paltry fundraising: He took in just $615,000, while Lamb raised $3 million.
But outside Republican groups pumped another $10.7 million into the race -- including about $3.5 million each from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Ryan. And the GOP still fell short in what had for years been seen as a safe district.
Ryan on Wednesday morning was re-emphasizing a message he's delivered GOP lawmakers for months: The tax bill, passed in December, needs to be sold aggressively -- particularly as a boost for working-class families.
Republicans in competitive races acknowledge Wednesday that Pennsylvania served as a warning.
"I don't think there's need to be alarmed, but there's certainly reason to be concerned," said North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said the message from the special election was clear. "You better be ready and in the end you determine your own fate in these things, particularly when you're running with candidates who have run before and won in difficult circumstances," Cole said, noting that the most vulnerable members are the 23 Republicans in seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
Republicans also argued that Trump's visit the Saturday before the election helped Saccone make up some ground in the final days of the race.
"it was probably a little bit too little, too late," Illinois GOP Rep. John Shimkus told reporters. He said he thinks the President can help in some districts, but lawmakers will have to make that determination on their own.
"I think in Pennsylvania the feedback was that Trump actually closed the gap for Saccone by coming in, so there was a feeling that there was going to be a bigger deficit for Saccone than there may have been, but it's probably different district by district," said Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson.
Several Republicans indicated that Ryan and other leaders gave a clear message that members can't be outraised by challengers and they need to work harder to have a financial advantage in a challenging political climate.
"Money is something you can make up pretty quickly, particularly if you are an incumbent and it's a competitive seat," Cole said.
But GOP lawmakers criticized their own candidate, Saccone, for not raising enough money and failing to take control of the narrative in the race.
"You've got to control your own destiny and he didn't," Shimkus said.
Shimkus pointed to the financial gap in the two campaigns as the reason why Saccone couldn't use the tax bill as an effective issue because he let outside groups and Lamb define who he was.
"He couldn't do the positive message because he didn't have the money," Shimkus said.
Lamb said on the campaign trail that he'd oppose House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, for speaker. But that didn't seem to diminish Pelosi's happiness over the outcome in a district where Democrats have been blown out in recent elections.
"It's exciting. It's very exciting," Pelosi said as she walked into a Democratic caucus meeting Wednesday morning. "This goes to show you this election is about the people of western Pennsylvania. But it's very exciting."
Pelosi added that the results showed "the enthusiasm for our candidates."
Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy, always one for colorful language, put it this way.
"We got our ass kicked," he told CNN. "It's what the political prognosticators called a good ol' fashioned ass-kicking."