With Conor Lamb clinging to a tight lead in Pennsylvania's 18th district, Democrats appear to have finally broken through in a special House election, flipping a district that president Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016.
Seen as a referendum on the president's performance, Tuesday's outcome is raising expectations that the Democratic wave of 2018 could be a tsunami. "These results should terrify Republicans," said Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "There are more than one hundred districts more favorable for Democrats than this one, and we look forward to competing hard in every single one."
Here's what you need to know:
A Winning Candidate
Lamb is a former Marine turned prosecutor who ran on a solidly liberal – pro-choice, pro-union, anti-Trump tax cut – platform. A couple of exceptions to blue-state orthodoxy, however, appeared to give Lamb a leg up in this west-Pennsylvania district. The first is a tough swallow for many liberals: Lamb is pro gun, appearing in an early ad with an assault rifle, and insisting, even after the Parkland massacre, that gun control is not the answer to gun violence. Lamb also ran against incumbent leadership in Washington, vowing not to vote for Nancy Pelosi as House leader. This stance may have helped neutralize GOP attack ads that painted Lamb as another sheep in Pelosi's Democratic flock.
Youthful, optimistic, ruggedly handsome, Lamb fit the bill for Pennsylvania's 18th, south of Pittsburgh. "I am from the same town as Conor Lamb," tweeted Tom Matzzie a longtime progressive operative. "He just acts like a guy from Western Pennsylvania and not somebody from California or New York. It is about culture."
A Lackluster Opponent
Lamb's opponent, meanwhile, was not a strong candidate. Chubby, shrill, with a faded mustache, Rick Saccone hugged Trump, campaigning on the president's tax cut and claiming his populist mantle – even insisting he “was Trump before Trump was Trump.” (Saccone was also weighed down by the taint of the district's fallen incumbent, a pro-life Republican who had resigned in scandal, after allegedly urging his mistress to get an abortion.)
The Trump Effect
The outcome of this individual race matters little. Republicans retain control of the House, and the Pennsylvania political map has been redrawn for the 2018 election; this specific district won't exist going forward. But as a bellwether, Tuesday's result suggests Trump is becoming an albatross for GOP candidates. Pennsylvania 18th district is rated R+11 – it tilts 11 points more GOP than the average congressional seat. And this special election brought additional headwinds for the Democrat: The Republican party's deep-pocketed donors nationalized the race, marshaling financial resources for Saccone that most GOP congressional candidates only dream of, including an $8 million edge in outside spending.
The president also threw his political weight into this race: Trump and his son Donald Jr. stumped hard for Saccone down the stretch. But Lamb still eked out a lead, and declared victory Tuesday (an outcome likely to be challenged with a recount).
Outlook for 2018
The key takeaway is this: If a Democrat can fight for victory in this blood red district, scores of seats appear to be for the taking in the 2018 midterms. It may require a strong Democrat and a weak Republican to flip an R+11 district come November. But control of the House hinges on districts where Republicans hold far lesser partisan advantages. There are roughly 50 GOP seats that rate R+6 or below. And Democrats need only two dozen pickups to take control of the House.
In a political climate where Conor Lamb can claim victory, not even GOP leadership can rest easy. The district of House Speaker Paul Ryan's in Wisconsin rates only R+5.