Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Republican Rick Saccone in last week’s special election for the U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, extending the Democratic Party’s winning streak and possibly offering a glimpse into the future electoral landscape a little more than seven months before the 2018 midterms.
Though the official results of the election are pending a final count, Lamb’s victory shook the political world and suggested that Republicans will have to withstand a massive Democratic wave this November if they are to retain their majorities in Congress.
This race received less media coverage than December’s special Senate election in Alabama, perhaps because the results have fewer immediate implications, with the GOP still claiming a large majority in the House despite the loss and the fact that Lamb will be up for reelection already in November.
While Doug Jones’s defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate special election was more shocking, Lamb’s victory may have been more improbable. Lamb’s district was a conservative, reliably Republican district, and a district that President Donald Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016. Unlike Roy Moore’s candidacy, which was skewed by allegations of sexual assault, Saccone’s campaign avoided any serious scandal. And while Saccone wasn’t the strongest candidate, Republican-aligned super PACs poured millions of dollars into his campaign and he enjoyed the vocal support of Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Congressional Republican leaders. In short, he should not have had any problem winning. Instead, he was defeated in a district so blatantly gerrymandered to benefit Republicans that it won’t even exist this November after the state Supreme Court ruled it had to be redrawn.
Lamb’s victory is ominous for Republicans. Democrats need to pick up 20 seats this November in order to retake the House, and there are 100 Republican-held seats less conservative than this one. If districts like these are even somewhat competitive come Election Day, Democrats will almost assuredly take back the House and could do so by a large margin.
Republicans have rolled out several excuses in an effort to gloss over this loss. Some have pointed to polls that predicted a 4 to 6-point Lamb victory, claiming the close margin actually means that Saccone exceeded expectations, or that Trump, who campaigned for Saccone days prior to the election, nearly propelled Saccone to victory. These rationalizations are weak. Losing in a district that Trump won by 20 points cannot possibly be construed as exceeding expectations, unless Republicans have reconciled themselves to losing the House in spectacular fashion.
As for the idea that Trump somehow energized voters and boosted Saccone in the final days, it seems almost certain the president’s lackluster approval ratings contributed significantly to Saccone’s defeat. The election was not only a repudiation of Saccone, but also a repudiation of Trump. Saccone billed himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump,” so if Trumpism still appeals to the voters of the 18th district a year and a half removed from the 2016 election, Saccone should have won with ease. Even if Trump’s visit did mobilize some conservatives to turn out and vote, that does not negate the fact that Trump’s unpopularity has turned independents against him and invigorated his liberal opponents.
Others have tried to dismiss Lamb’s victory by claiming that he is actually a conservative, which is a rather specious argument. Lamb ran on a platform that supported universal health care, labor unions and legal medical marijuana, and opposed the GOP’s tax bill, cuts to Social Security and Trump’s border wall. Those are not conservative positions. Though Lamb is personally opposed to abortion and more centrist on gun control issues, he is pro-choice on constitutional grounds (as are many Democrats) and supports stronger background checks on gun purchases. He is hardly the “pro-life, pro-gun conservative” that Paul Ryan tried to characterize him as after his victory.
From the Democratic perspective, Lamb’s victory underscores the fact that is there is no sole blueprint for success in these Congressional races. Jones won in Alabama on a solidly liberal platform. Lamb mixed both liberal and moderate positions to win in Pennsylvania. Though more moderate and more liberal Democratic candidates will surely clash in the primaries, this intra-party conflict must stay contained to the primaries, and Democrats would be wise to embrace the ideological diversity within their party in their quest to retake the House. Lamb’s victory, coupled with a large number of retiring GOP incumbents, demonstrates that scores of House districts will be up for grabs in the fall. Even the Senate could be winnable if the cards fall just right.
Though it is easy to dismiss Lamb’s victory as an isolated and irrelevant event, it reflects deep voter dissatisfaction with the current balance of power that will indubitably influence the results of the 2018 midterms. Looking down the road, control of Congress will be critical to not only determining whether Trump can implement his legislative agenda but also determining the president’s fate if the special counsel, Robert Mueller’s investigation concludes that Trump colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. Given these implications, last week’s results in Pennsylvania should energize Democrats and alarm the Trump administration.
Noah Harrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org