Republicans appear likely to lose a special election here by the slimmest of margins, but hanging in the race shouldn't give the party relief: The House race in this Pennsylvania district never should've been this close, and it could be a sign of what's to come later this year.
Democrat Conor Lamb, who currently leads by 627 votes with all precincts in and absentee ballots counted, was introduced as the "congressman-elect" when he took the stage at his election party just before 1 a.m. Wednesday morning and told the crowd: "We did it." The Democratic congressional campaign arm also declared victory, issuing a statement just before midnight. But Republican Rick Saccone has not conceded the race, and the margin could still possibly change as outstanding ballots are counted.
All of this drama is playing out over a House seat that, because of redistricting, won’t exist in nine months. And to get to this point, national Republicans were forced to pour millions of dollars into a district President Donald Trump won by almost 20 points just over a year ago.
One Republican consultant told BuzzFeed News that the returns should put GOP candidates on notice — if they weren’t already. “I think it again is just another warning sign,” the consultant said.
The contours of this Pittsburgh-area special election are, of course, unique. But the result, Republicans said, is yet another harbinger for the midterm elections to come, and not a good one.
Former Rep. Tom Davis, once the chairman of the House Republican campaign arm, predicted before the polls closed that the results would be “overhyped.”
“But the wind is the wind,” he told BuzzFeed News. “And there’s no question the breeze is blowing against the president’s party right now.”
Saving face would be enough for some in the party, though, if Saccone manages to win. “The narrative’s not going to win or lose a race, but it does make it easier to raise money. It does make it easier to recruit. When people think you’re going to win, everything becomes easier,” said one GOP campaign consultant.
Republicans have won several high-stakes special elections in the last year, including in Georgia and Montana. Still, there’s no denying the trend: Democrats have consistently outperformed in special elections since 2016, and by large margins, even when they’ve lost races.
“We’re not extrapolating one district when this is the fourth or fifth special election that’s been hard for Republicans,” a House GOP chief of staff told BuzzFeed News.
This squeaker Pennsylvania race, once the results are officially called, will likely prompt Republicans to reexamine both the candidates they nominate and how they campaign ahead of November’s midterms, no matter who wins.
Even before the first ballot was cast in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Republicans were publicly trashing Saccone in an effort to isolate the race from being seen as a broader rebuke of the president. A former White House official criticized operatives from his own party for fueling Democratic optimism. “Finger pointing before ballots are cast is premature and only helps the other side build momentum,” the official said.
At least 38 House Republicans have announced they’ll leave their seats by the end of this Congress, and Republicans need to be conscious of who they nominate to compete in those open districts. “We’re going to have an enthusiasm gap from the beginning, so we can’t run people who bring their own enthusiasm problems into races,” said one Republican campaign strategist.
And after Saccone’s struggles, GOP consultant Doug Heye predicted, they could be contending with more open seats. “If we lose this race as well that’s one more sign,” Heye told BuzzFeed News before polls closed Tuesday. It could “cause members, much like animals fleeing before the earthquake actually happens, to give up their seats," he added.
Some Republicans said they might need to rethink how they talk to voters. “It’s the first election with tax reform on the ballot, and we are clearly going to have to reevaluate how to message it,” the House GOP chief of staff told BuzzFeed News.
The way the race has played out has Republicans thinking about the types of candidates they have running this year, and how those candidates should be running to beat back a potential disaster. Saccone was a bad candidate, national Republicans said, but even a bad Republican candidate can do great things with millions of dollars at his or her back — especially in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat to represent it in the House since 2000.
There was no shortage of effort to try and push Saccone over the line in the last few days. Trump himself came to Moon Township on Saturday to rally voters with the candidate (and made a slew of unrelated news while he was at it). Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., also joined Saccone at two events Monday (and bought a lot of chocolate for his troubles).
But the national focus Trump brought to the race, with his complaints about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, aren’t going to be enough for candidates in 2018, Republicans said.
“You’ve got to run a specialized race this year,” said the Republican consultant. “You can’t just run a bunch of ads saying, ‘tax reform good, Nancy Pelosi bad, elect me to Congress, maybe.’”
“You’ve got to give people a reason to vote for you,” the consultant added.
Lamb, Republicans said, excelled at that, ultimately helping him slash Trump’s 2016 margin of victory.
"He's a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, social-security-believing, healthcare-believing, sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, which held a rally with Lamb in Waynesburg the Sunday before the election.
It’s a particularly compelling profile in a district with lots of union members and blue-collar voters who might have voted for Trump in 2016 but aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. But running as a moderate isn’t always a luxury for candidates in this political era, when primaries tend to push candidates to the farther extremes than their parties. Lamb was nominated at a convention and never had to compete for a purely Democratic electorate.
The former Trump campaign official described Lamb as “a unicorn candidate.”
“I would be worried if Democrats could find a pro-life-ish, pro-gun Marine to run in every moderate district in the country,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist. “But they can’t and won’t.”