Paul Ryan: Let's face it, a pro-gun, pro-life, anti-Pelosi conservative won in Pennsylvania last night

Well … sort of. Just not the pro-gun, pro-life, anti-Pelosi conservative who ran as a Republican in a heavily Republican district and was endorsed by everyone in the Republican Party, including the president of the United States.

This is weak spin but there’s really no way to polish the turd handed to the GOP in PA-18. It’s true, at least, that Conor Lamb is pro-gun and is *personally* pro-life, although he said he wouldn’t vote to ban abortion after 20 weeks. It’s also true that he was chilly towards Nancy Pelosi on the stump. But click here and scroll down. You’ll see that he’s quite comfortable with most of her agenda, especially as regards Ryan’s own bete noire, entitlements.

Ben Shapiro ably summarized the predicament for Republicans:

Ryan tries to make some hay in the clip below about Shapiro’s last point, that Democrats might not be shrewd enough to nominate candidates well-tailored to their districts, as Lamb was. (Beltway Republicans know from painful experience what that’s like.) Berniebros are spoiling for a fight with the Democratic establishment; if they can knock off “electable” centrist Dems in the primaries, maybe the GOP will luck out and get to face far-left progressives in swing districts. It’s a comforting thought, except for two things. One: Democrats learned the hard way in 2016 that the “electable” centrist may not be as electable as the far-left alternative. It’s debatable whether Bernie would have won by cannibalizing some of Trump’s support among working-class whites. It’s not debatable whether Hillary would have, because she didn’t. Be careful what you wish for.

Two: Lamb’s win may have softened left-wing attitudes towards nominating centrists in the name of victory. You’re less likely to be a stickler for ideological conformity when reclaiming power is within reach.

As predicted last night, job one for the GOP this morning is laying the blame for last night’s result at Saccone’s feet and exonerating Trump. Or, in some cases, doing more than exonerating him — actually crediting him for having made the outcome as close as it was.

“Well, I think they’re going to be pointing to the fact of the big Trump bump that Saccone got on the home stretch,” [Jason] Miller said. “The fact that they closed the five-point gap and you talk about some of the other things the Trump folks did behind the scenes, there was a robo-call from the president yesterday.”…

“Last week, it looked like Mr. Lamb was going to win by six points,” host Steve Doocy said. “So something drew it closer together, if you believe in polls. Maybe it was the president’s visit and the visit from the Trump family.”

Idiotic. One poll did show Lamb ahead by six a few days ago, but a different poll taken a few days before that had Saccone up by three. Trump held his rally in the district on Saturday night, after that poll was taken. You could just as easily spin a narrative that Trump’s appearance pushed voters away from Saccone and towards Lamb than that Trump somehow singlehandedly made the race a toss-up. In fact, given the GOP’s track record in special elections during Trump’s presidency, you could make that argument much more plausibly:

In most special elections during the Trump era, Republicans have underperformed the Trump’s 2016 margin. Saccone is no exception—the election was essentially tied in a district that Trump won in a blowout. That’s worse than the average Republican underperformance (Daily Kos Elections had Republicans on average underperforming Trump’s margin by 13 points as of Tuesday night), which is bad. But when you put it in context, it’s actually not that far off some other races we’ve seen during the Trump Era. (Remember Kansas’s 4th District, where the Republican won a special election by seven points after Trump won it by 27 points in 2016.)

Trump partisans might want to write off these results as a fluke (Saccone was a bad candidate; special elections have weird turnout; Democrats have poured a lot of money into these races). But the numbers are a part of a broader pattern. President Trump is historically unpopular, and his bad poll numbers are hurting Republicans up and down the ballot. In recent elections, rank and file Republicans have failed to turn out and, in some cases, moved towards the Democratic party. In generic ballot polls (one of the best predictors we have of the eventual midterm result), Democrats lead Republicans by a solid margin. And Republican members of Congress have been retiring at a breakneck pace.

It takes some elephantine stones to claim with a straight face that Trump was almost the saving grace in a district which, after 14 months of his presidency, has shrunk from R+20 to essentially even. Saccone was a “bad candidate” insofar as he was a terrible fundraiser but he wasn’t some radioactive scandal-ridden Roy-Moore-type crank. He was a basically generic Republican running in a district where generic Republicans usually don’t even need to campaign to win easily, especially when they’re running in the Rust Belt two weeks after steel tariffs were announced. The dynamics of midterms being what they are, with out-party voters energized to claw back power, I’m sure Democrats would be scoring some wins even if we’d elected Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. They woke up after the 2016 election having been routed at every level of government, after all. Obviously they’re hungrier than Republicans are now. But an R+20 district should not be competitive when the economy is roaring and blockbuster jobs reports are dropping. Why was it? There’s an obvious answer.

There are, by the way, fully 117 House districts that are *less red* than PA-18 and therefore might be in play as well. Democrats won’t win all or even most of them, but all they need is 24 seats — just about 20 percent of those competitive districts — to retake the House. Exit question via Philip Klein: “If Trump has so little sway in this district, what are Republicans going to do in districts where he’s been a lot less popular?”