The special election race for Pennsylvania’s 18th District is too close to call, but many of the takeaways are the same, no matter whether Democrat Conor Lamb or Republican Rick Saccone ultimately prevails.
There will be plenty of hot takes on the impact of President Donald Trump on the race. But I think there’s one undeniable truth: If President Hillary Clinton were sitting in the White House, Republicans wouldn’t have been sweating this race. If blaming their nominee helps Republicans sleep at night, then so be it.
By the numbers, the western Pennsylvania district shouldn’t have been close, since Trump won the seat by 19 points in 2016. But the result shouldn’t have been a complete surprise considering the trend of a year’s worth of special elections.
Even without knowing the victor, there are at least a few lessons to be learned:
Republicans should probably be most concerned that one of their key messages — demonizing Nancy Pelosi — wasn’t enough to bury the Democratic nominee. The message was critical in keeping Georgia’s 6th District in GOP hands last year but wasn’t enough to put this race away, even though Trump carried the 18th by a much larger margin. Democrats believe Lamb’s résumé as a prosecutor and veteran helped inoculate him against charges that he was a Pelosi puppet or meek farm animal. That could be good news for a party with a large number of military veterans running for Congress elsewhere around the country this year.
Watch: Ryan: Democrats’ Success in Pennsylvania 18 Not Repeatable
Democrats shouldn’t dismiss Pelosi as a potential liability. Lamb addressed her specifically in a television ad and tried to pivot to other issues. Candidates don’t repeat opponents’ attacks unless they are working and feel like they need to respond.
Democrats don’t need to win districts like Pennsylvania’s 18th. Of course, a Lamb victory would be nice, but the better news is that to recapture the majority, Democrats can put together a collection of seats that Hillary Clinton carried and Trump carried more narrowly than the 18th District.
President Trump matters (Part 1): Saccone didn’t struggle because the president is unpopular in the 18th District. More likely, he struggled because Democrats are more energized than usual now that Trump sits in the Oval Office.
President Trump matters (Part 2): The closeness of the race demonstrated that Trump’s popularity among Republicans isn’t easily transferable. If it were, Saccone would have won the race handily. It feels similar to President Barack Obama’s relationship with Democrats. Democratic candidates enjoyed a boost when Obama was on the ballot, but the president struggled to convince supporters to turn out when he wasn’t.
President Trump matters (Part 3a): The president’s rally on Saturday may have given Saccone some last-minute energy, but it demonstrated the challenge for Republican candidates over the next eight months. If the president visits your district for a campaign rally, you never know what you’re going to get. You might get five minutes of focused attention on your race, but the president will bring up a dozen other issues that could overshadow your contest. Caveat emptor.
President Trump matters (Part 3b): While the White House will say the president’s recent visit gave Saccone a late boost, Trump’s visit to the district in mid-January gave Lamb an early boost too, according to Democratic strategists. The president’s visit introduced Lamb to Democratic donors and activists across the country who started contributing to the Democrat’s campaign before he was running on all cylinders. His campaign snowballed from there.
Primaries matter (Part 1): According to state law, local party officials chose their respective nominees in lieu of primaries. While many party officials view primaries as the plague, this is a case where Republicans might have benefitted. A primary would have forced Saccone to ramp up his campaign and fundraising operation sooner before getting to the heat of a general election.
Primaries matter (Part 2): GOP strategists are convinced a Democratic primary would have altered the dynamic of the special election. Without a competitive primary, Lamb could define himself on his own terms. This is in contrast to dozens of competitive primaries around the country. Republicans believe these primaries will push Democratic candidates to take liberal positions to secure the nomination of liberal voters and make an anti-Pelosi message more convincing.
Candidates matter (Part 1): It’s not as easy to blame Saccone for the results as it was to throw Roy Moore under the proverbial bus. Saccone is a veteran and state representative chosen by the local political establishment. He might have been boring and unattractive, but he didn’t have the personal baggage Moore brought to the Alabama race. Saccone did suffer from a dramatic contrast with Lamb — who could play a congressman in a television show about Congress — and never put together the campaign and fundraising necessary to compete in this high-profile contest.
Candidates matter (Part 2): While Lamb struggled to mount a credible campaign late last year, he eventually put the pieces in place to take advantage of the favorable political environment. He successfully navigated thorny issues (guns), Pelosi and Trump’s relatively favorable job rating in the district. Democrats have stronger, more experienced candidates than Lamb already running in competitive races.
Candidates matter (Part 3): Republicans have many vulnerable incumbents who will run stronger, better-funded campaigns than Saccone. That might not be enough to save them if a political wave is developing. But for Democrats, knocking off Rick Saccone will likely be easier than taking on GOP Reps. Carlos Curbelo in Florida, John Katko in New York or Will Hurd in Texas.
Be careful how you spin: In the rush to explain away a loss, Republicans are heaping praise on Lamb for his message and campaign. That must be tough for GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus to hear considering he might be facing Lamb in the regularly scheduled election this year in a newly drawn 17th District. It’s where Lamb lives and is a more Democratic district than both the seat Lamb is currently winning and the new 14th, which contains most of the territory from the old 18th.
Money matters (Part 1): It’s true Republicans combined to outspend Democrats, but the difference in the number of television ads was less dramatic. Much of the Democratic spending came from Lamb, who was able to buy advertising at the lesser candidate rate, while GOP outside groups, compensating for Saccone’s lack of fundraising, had to spend more for fewer ads. The good news for Republicans in the fall is that many of their incumbents will have more money to defend themselves in contrast to Saccone. The bad news for Republicans is they may be facing a political problem that money can’t fix.
Money matters (Part 2): Outside groups are at their best airing negative ads and defining opponents, but it’s important for candidates to deliver their own positive message and define themselves. Saccone failed to do that in this race. Positive ads are most effective if the candidate is involved, but outside groups can’t legally coordinate with the candidate, making those ads difficult to produce. There are ways around it (by a campaign posting HD-quality video to their website to be downloaded by anyone), but that’s probably a level of sophistication lost on the Saccone campaign. Lamb’s fundraising allowed him to define himself and personally fight back against GOP attacks.
Money matters (Part 3): The parties are finding new ways to get involved in races. In the Alabama Senate special election, Senate Majority PAC, the go-to Democratic outside group, created “Highway 31” in order to have its ads one step farther away from liberal donors and party leaders. More recently, in Pennsylvania’s 18th, the go-to Democratic outside group on the House side, House Majority PAC, contributed $347,500 to VoteVets, which happened to make a $350,000 independent expenditure for a television ad, “Look Closely.” VoteVets seems like a better messenger in this race than a super PAC aligned with Democratic leadership.