As America woke up this morning several news outlets, but not all, called the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional district for Democrat Conor Lamb. Though his apparent .02 percent win over Republican Rick Saccone is not yet fully secure, the outcome as far as we know it sends some messages to both parties in the lead up to the 2018 midterm election.
Even though Lamb looks to have won a district that president Trump carried by 20 points in 2016, an ominous sign, there was some reason for GOP hope in the result. By yesterday, even after a last ditch rally in the district by the president, most pundits thought Saccone was headed for an embarrassing, multi-point loss. He was not considered a very good candidate and was up against a kind of Democratic golden boy.
A Republican Silver Lining
As results started to come in, it looked like an easy win for Lamb was in the making. But there were still some naysayers and pesky votes to count. As the evening went on, Saccone started mounting a remarkable comeback. If there is a glimmer of hope in losing a ruby red district like PA-18 it might be that once again the poll numbers and models were wrong, and once again they were overestimating the results for Democrats. At one point in the evening The New York Times, concerned that its model had gone up the spout, actually took down its projection needle, having lost confidence in its predictive power.
In the face of what seemed throughout the day to be pending doom in PA-18, Republicans found a talking point to explain the defeat. Lamb, they said, had basically run as a Republican. In retrospect they probably should have waited a day to roll that out and spent yesterday trying bolster confidence in Saccone. They also should have had more confidence that the president’s visit to the district would move votes, but confidence is not something the GOP has much of a supply of these days. Still, in regard to Lamb’s leanings, they have a point.
Democrats Now Face A Choice
There is no question that in today’s Democratic Party, where Diane Feinstein is too conservative to be endorsed by the California Democratic Party, Lamb is about as close to being a Republican as a Democrat can get. We’re talking about a candidate who is a Catholic former Marine who supports fracking, opposes Nancy Pelosi and literally launched his campaign with an ad showing him firing an AR-15.
Democrats have to decide if this is the kind of face and policy approach they want going forward, or if they prefer candidates more like Hillary Clinton, who this past week waxed poetic about how she won all the forward thinking parts of America, while Trump won the places full of racists and backwards thinking. She was talking about places just like PA-18.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, no stranger to moderate Democratic politics put it this way, “Conor Lamb is a lesson to us as a party. Conor Lamb ran as a conservative Democrat, certainly a moderate. He’s a moderate on gun rights, he’s for background checks, but against an assault weapon ban. He’s pro-life, although he said he would vote to keep Planned Parenthood up and running. So he’s a true moderate, and he reflects the district.”
For Democrats like Rendell and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Lamb represents exactly the Blue Dog Democrat approach they have been calling for. But in what many on the Left have decided will be the year of the progressive woman, it may be a challenge to focus attention and resources on moderate white guys as the path to reclaim the House. A 5 or 6 point win by Lamb would have made that sell easier. The fact he nearly lost makes it anything but.
While it’s never wise to invest too much agita on special elections as bellwethers for national elections, both sides have a lot to think about after last night’s squeaker. Republicans know this could have been worse and that it may be possible to withstand the headwinds they are facing.
They also know that the president’s visit probably helped. Now, Trump can’t swoop into every purple district in America in the fall, but he certainly can appear in several important districts where his presence can be effective.
But the biggest lesson and decision here is for Democrats. Do middle of the road, GOP-light candidates like Lamb hold the keys to the Speaker’s office? Or should they ride the wave of progressive resistance as far they can, hoping not just for a majority, but a majority made up of congressmen on the far-Left?
District by district, the Party of Jackson and Jefferson may be able to pick and choose, a moderate here and a firebrand there, but as a national party, they will need to choose an identity not just going into 2018, but into the presidential election of 2020 as well. Now is the time when they must begin to make that choice.