Republican anxiety about the midterm congressional elections has been building throughout President Donald Trump’s first year in the White House. Now it’s about to explode.
A Democrat was clinging to a 641-vote lead after all the votes were counted in a special congressional election in western Pennsylvania on Tuesday. In a heavily Republican district that Trump carried by almost 20 percentage points in 2016, that’s a big problem for Republicans even in the unlikely event that a recount changes the result.
The margin was slim, but the impact is likely to be outsized, showing national Democrats that political momentum is with them and creating heightened tension between congressional Republicans and Trump.
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The Democrat, Conor Lamb, 33, is a former prosecutor and Marine who ran as a moderate unbeholden to Washington Democrats and without saying much about Trump.
He led state legislator Rick Saccone, a devout conservative and Trump enthusiast. Trump twice campaigned for Saccone, including a visit on Saturday, and Republican-supporting groups poured in more than $10 million to try to save what they once considered a safe seat.
Their apparent failure heightens their nervousness about the November congressional elections and suggests that Trump’s popularity could be waning even among his hardcore base. As in previous recent upsets of heavily favored Republicans, notably a December special election that awarded an Alabama senate seat to a Democrat for the first time since 1992, Trump’s support meant little.
This may cause more House Republican departures on top of the three dozen who have already announced that they are leaving. It’s also likely to tempt some GOP candidates to put more distance between themselves and Trump in an effort to appeal to independents and suburbanites, even at the risk of alienating conservative stalwarts who put Trump in the White House.
Lamb’s showing is certain to convince Democrats that they can win back the House in November. A victory would provide more than a psychological boost, generating money and encouraging new candidates in places where Democrats haven’t yet fielded competitive challengers.
The enthusiasm in Pennsylvania was with Lamb. He ran strongly in the Pittsburgh suburbs and cut into the usual Republican margins in small towns and rural parts of the district.
It was a story much like the ones that have unfolded in dozens of elections since Trump’s presidential victory, in statewide contests in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama and in local races across the country where Democrats outperformed their previous showings and sometimes took over Republican-held seats.
“The dynamics of the 2018 election continue to favor Democrats in a way that it hasn’t for a long time,” said Geoff Garin a leading pollster who conducts surveys for the Senate Democratic leadership. Smart Republican politicians like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have openly worried this is correct.
The Pennsylvania race was an early test of the political impact of Trump’s new tariffs on steel and aluminum. The imposition of the tariffs, quickly announced last week to the surprise even of some top White House officials, probably was accelerated to help Saccone in a manufacturing area with some jobs in steel. Trump has boasted that the tariffs will be a political winner in the Rust Belt, and both Lamb and Saccone supported them.
But it didn’t seem to have helped Saccone, and Garin said he has just completed polls in some trade-sensitive states that show no bump in Trump’s popularity.
“Voters’ views on Trump are pretty well fixed,” Garin said.
The outcome also may undercut Republican hopes that tax cuts passed by the Republican Congress in December will resonate with voters. In the final week of the Pennsylvania campaign, the poll-tested Republican advertising campaign downplayed taxes and stressed social issues like immigration and crime. Lamb opposed the Republican tax plan, charging that it gave too much to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of middle- and working-class voters.
Lamb’s profile fit well with a district with many culturally conservative union households and seniors. He tacked to the middle on social issues, said he would vote against Nancy Pelosi for party leader, and focused little on Trump. He embraced labor unions, vowed to oppose cuts in Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and called for more resources for education. The Ivy League-educated ex-Marine has deep roots in the community where his family held various political offices for years.
The special election was called when the incumbent Republican, Tim Murphy, was forced to resign last fall after he urged a lover to have an abortion. The district is so reliably Republican that Murphy had run unopposed in the previous two elections. Mitt Romney carried it in 2012 by almost as much as Trump did four years later.
Pending a confirmed result in the special election, Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to win a majority in the House; they are counting on at least three or four of the gains occurring in Pennsylvania.
One won’t be this district, which will cease to exist in its current form. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew new district lines to correct what it ruled was partisan Republican gerrymandering of the state’s congressional districts. The newly redrawn district will be contested starting with party primaries in May primaries. Lamb is likely to run in an adjacent district against Republican incumbent Keith Rothkus in what will be a very competitive venue.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.