Opinion

Why the Pennsylvania special election was a different blow for Republicans and President Trump

By the Observer editorial board

Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, center, celebrates with his supporters at his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa., early Wednesday.
Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, center, celebrates with his supporters at his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa., early Wednesday. AP

How badly did Donald Trump want a win in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district Tuesday night?

Bad enough that he visited there twice, including once late last week. He sent his vice president there, and his kids. It’s possible his decision this month to levy stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports – against the counsel of his staff and Republican leaders – was at least in part an appeal to voters in PA-18.

How badly did Republicans want a win there, too? Outside groups invested more than $10 million for Republican candidate Rick Saccone as of Tuesday, far more than the $1.8 million of outside money that went to Democrat Conor Lamb. That includes $3.5 million from the National Republican Congressional Committee, $3.4 million from the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC and $1.3 from the Republican National Committee.

All for a congressional seat that won’t exist by November, when Pennsylvania voters elect new members of Congress in redrawn districts.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Lamb had too much of a lead for Saccone to overcome, although the Republican hadn’t conceded. But for all practical purposes, Democrats had the win they wanted long before everyone went to bed Tuesday. They had turned a district Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016 into a tossup, just as they have overperformed the 2016 vote in races from Alabama to Virginia to Georgia, as well as statehouse races across the country.

This one, however, was different for Trump. PA-18 had the kind of demographics he covets, a mix of suburban moderates and rural steel-country voters who helped deliver his surprise victory in 2016. His party also wasn’t hamstrung by a truly awful candidate in this special election, like Roy Moore in Alabama. In fact, Saccone had gladly embraced the trappings of Trumpism, even calling reporters “fake news” when they asked questions of him.

This one was different for Republicans, too. It was the first special election since Congress passed massive tax cuts that put money – at least for now – in the pockets of those middle-class Pennsylvanians. Republicans trumpeted that signature legislation in PA-18 ads, at least until they realized something unexpected: Voters weren’t responding to them.

Now, Republicans in reliably GOP districts across the country are wondering just how reliable their districts are. That includes Rep. Robert Pittenger, who won by 17 points in 2016 but now faces a stronger Democratic candidate in November – if Pittenger can survive his primary. It also includes Republicans like Virginia Foxx and Ted Budd, whose conservative House districts aren’t rated as strong for Republicans as PA-18 was.

Yes, Democratic wins in those districts seem unlikely, but here’s the reality Republicans face: If your district includes more than a handful of suburban, educated voters, you’re in trouble.

If you believed the appeal of tax cuts to voters would outweigh the impact of Republicans gutting Obamacare and supporting a vulgar and racist president, you’re in trouble.

If you’re a Republican and nothing changes between now and November? Your job just might.

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