Wasn’t the Ossoff/Handel special election the most important of our lifetimes? Or was it the Moore/Jones showdown in Alabama? In an age of hyperpolarization, I suppose every election is the most important of our lifetimes, by definition.
This time it’s Republican Rick Saccone versus “Democrat” Conor Lamb for the open House seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, a deep red region in the western part of the state outside Pittsburgh. In some ways the stakes couldn’t be lower: Not only would a Democratic upset barely matter in the House, the district may not exist for much longer depending upon how PA’s redistricting mess gets sorted out. Even the ideological stakes are low. The reason I put Lamb’s party ID in quotes is because he’s all but unrecognizable as a Democrat. He’s pro-gun (opposed to a ban on assault weapons), personally pro-life, has nothing nice to say about Nancy Pelosi and nothing bad to say about Donald Trump. For all intents and purposes he’s a moderate Republican, at least until the vote tonight is over. So who cares who wins this race?
Trump does, as do Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. The seat itself is unimportant but the signal a Democratic upset would send is all kinds of bad for the GOP. The party’s dumped many millions into this race and had POTUS himself swing by the district for a rally last week to try to keep it red, knowing that if it turns blue Democratic enthusiasm for the midterms will supernova and another round of weary Republicans in the House may throw in the towel and retire. PA-18 is very, very red, almost unloseably so. If Lamb beats Saccone, the lesson learned will be that no district is safe for the GOP this fall. The party’s sufficiently worried about it that the chair of the Pennsylvania GOP has taken to trying to spin it as a “Democratic district,” which, uh, no, dude:
2008 presidential: McCain +11%
2008 House: Murphy +28%
2010 House: Murphy +35%
2012 presidential: Romney +17%
2012 House: Murphy +28%
2014 House: Murphy unopposed
2016 presidential: Trump +20%
2016 House: Murphy unopposed https://t.co/HQCpzLEEHD
— Carrie Dann (@CarrieNBCNews) March 12, 2018
It’s not “Texas red,” perhaps, but … actually, it’s much redder than that. Trump won Texas by nine points two years ago. He won PA-18 by more than double that, as you can see. This is Trump Country, part of the Rust Belt. If a personal appearance from the president himself can’t deliver it for Saccone in this climate, what sort of blue wave are we looking at this fall?
The GOP has a ready answer to that, just in case their candidate goes belly up tonight: Saccone stinks. His resume is formidable, with a PhD and long background in counterintelligence to his name, but his career as a state legislator is undistinguished and he lags badly as a fundraiser. As his polling has weakened, more stories have appeared in political media the past few weeks pointing fingers at him for making an easily winnable district competitive for Team Blue. Trump has reportedly been trashing him too despite having appeared in the district for him a few days ago:
There’s a reason Trump said hardly anything about Republican candidate Rick Saccone during a rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday night that was supposed to promote his candidacy.
The reason: Trump thinks Saccone is a terrible, “weak” candidate, according to four sources who’ve spoken to the president about him.
Trump held that opinion of Saccone before leaving for the rally, and I’ve not been able to establish whether his time on the ground with the candidate changed his mind.
If Lamb pulls the upset tonight the GOP will lay the blame squarely on Saccone while the media will lay it squarely on Trump, claiming that his poor job approval has poisoned even red districts for Republicans this year. It’ll be hard for the White House to sell the idea that losing a district the president won by 20 and where the president appeared just days ago is no reflection on the president himself. And Lamb does have a real shot to win: The most recent poll, conducted by Monmouth, gave him a shocking six-point lead over Saccone. A second poll taken a week earlier had him ahead by three. Right now he’s a two-point favorite in the RCP average, an almost unimaginable lead given the dynamics of the district. And if Saccone squeaks through to victory, the mere fact that the race was close will be treated as a sign that Republicans are in deep trouble this fall. It’s almost a no-win situation for the GOP. They can’t even treat a Saccone win as proof that the new tax cuts are a political trump card for them, as they’ve basically stopped talking about them in Saccone’s race.
The one good outcome for Republicans, obviously, would be Saccone winning and overperforming in doing so. That would beat back the “blue tidal wave” jitters, maybe convince some House Republicans to stay put, hand Trump a personal victory after he campaigned in the district for Saccone, and, most of all, suggest that his new steel tariffs are a winner for him and the GOP in key districts. Tariffs, even more so than Saccone and Trump, will be the ultimate victor tomorrow as the media concocts its narrative of the race if the Republican candidate comes out on top. But if he doesn’t, you can imagine how the narrative will change: “If Trump’s tariffs can’t help hold a red seat in the Rust Belt, what good are they politically?”
Polls close at 8 p.m. ET. Live results will be tabulated at the Upshot. No doubt POTUS will have something to say on Twitter before the night is through as well. Here’s the handy dandy Hot Air/Townhall widget for real-time commentary as returns come in.