We won’t know who won the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district until tomorrow. Democrat Conor Lamb currently leads Republican Rick Saccone, and appears to be the favorite; but the margin is razor-thin, and not all the absentee ballots have been counted. With the race this close, the possibility of a recount looms. But the identity of the eventual victor is not as important as the fact that this election is a very bad sign for the Republican party.
The margin in the House is not close enough for this seat to matter. The district will no longer exist come November. Primaries for the congressional election in the district replacing this one are in two months; the winner of this race will be campaigning again quite soon. The real story here is the continuation of a post-Trump trend: the diminishing popularity of the GOP in places that have been deep-red for years. We’ve seen it happen in elections at the state level, such as in Wisconsin; we saw it happen in Alabama; now, we’re seeing it happen in the western Pennsylvania suburbs and coal towns.
The 18th district has gone for the Republican presidential nominee by a large margin ever since George W. Bush was president. Disgraced former congressman Tim Murphy, who formerly occupied this seat, never faced a serious challenge in 15 years. In 2016, Trump won the district by a 20 percent margin. National Republicans surely will blame Saccone if he loses, and it’s true that he has run a lackluster campaign. But Saccone is not nearly a poor enough candidate to explain what looks to be a 20-point swing to the Democrats.
First of all, national Republicans offset the fundraising gap between Saccone and the harder-working Lamb by making million-dollar ad buys in the district. But none of their messaging was as successful as they had hoped. Ads touting tax reform were quietly taken off the air; ads tying Lamb to Nancy Pelosi clearly did not scare enough Republicans into turning out. Meanwhile, by successfully cultivating the image of a middle-of-the-road candidate, Lamb was able to flip Trump-heavy localities such as Moon Township — where Donald Trump held his rally for Saccone on Saturday — by 17.5 points. Obviously, that swing owes to some combination of three things: declining enthusiasm among loyal Republicans, disenchanted Trump voters flipping to the Democrat, and strong Democratic turnout in well-educated suburbs. Until the dust settles, we can’t say which factor was the most important, but none of them bodes well for the GOP this November.
Incidentally, Lamb’s win might have an interesting effect on internecine debates within the Democratic party. Its social-democratic wing argues that “Bernie would have won,” and that the best way to combat Trump is to run candidates who are as progressive as possible to flip the working-class voters who helped deliver Trump the presidency. Its activist wing thinks Sanders-style working-class politics ignores ethnic minorities. Both agree that the party establishment is too moderate and needs to go. All of this has led to some entertaining fights between establishment-approved candidates and more-strident leftist candidates seeking party nominations. But Lamb has working-class appeal despite being an avowed moderate — his tack toward Saccone and the GOP was not to accuse them of being racists, sexists, or otherwise reactionaries, but rather to call them con men whose overtures to working Americans were lies that benefited only the GOP donor class. Lamb brought in figures such as Joe Kennedy and Joe Biden to campaign on his behalf; he shied away from culture-war issues; he accused Republicans of being the ones to engage in class warfare and waged little of his own. Perhaps his success will give Democrats an alternative path to lurching leftward.