It’s hard to imagine a candidate with friendlier looks, a more harmless demeanor and a gentler-sounding surname than Conor Lamb.
It’s hard to imagine a message for the GOP scarier than the one that Lamb, a Democrat, just delivered in a special House election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, where he led his Republican opponent, Rick Saccone, by less than 1,000 votes in a race that remained too close to call on Wednesday morning.
Lamb declared victory. But even if he somehow ends up losing, Democrats have reason to rejoice and Republicans to tremble. Just 16 months ago, Donald Trump won this district by 20 points, and its promise as the kind of place brimming with the sort of voters who thrill to him was confirmed by his visit there late last week for a rally in support of Saccone. The president put what popularity he retains on the line, and flexed his trademark schoolyard humor with the epithet “Lamb the Sham.” This is all that he has to show for it.
Politically and ideologically, Saccone glued himself to Trump, running a campaign whose slogan might as well have been, “I’m With Him.” Outside Republican groups poured millions into the race, some of it for ads that touted the very tax cuts that are supposed to buoy their hopes to hold onto their House majority in the November midterms.
In other words, they fought hard – and with definite cause for optimism. The district has voted so reliably Republican over the last decade that in the 2014 and 2016 House races, Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate.
So Lamb’s showing – win, lose or draw – is remarkable, and it’s of a piece with the victory of Doug Jones, a Democrat, in a special election for the U.S. Senate in Alabama and with what happened last November in Virginia, where Democrats prevailed decisively in the gubernatorial race and picked up a large number of seats in the state’s House of Delegates. Clearly, the opposition to Trump is energized and organized. Just as clearly, Trump’s style of governing – bereft of truth, lavish with chaos, crude and divisive – has diminished his standing and given his rivals an enormous window of opportunity.
In the upcoming hours and days, you will hear otherwise. Republican leaders will spin like mad. They’ll make the case that what happened in Pennsylvania was peculiar to Pennsylvania and that there are few omens to be seen in it or lessons to be gleaned. They commenced that effort even before the voting in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, spooked by late polls that suggested serious trouble for Saccone, 60.
They murmured about what an especially clumsy and charisma-deficient candidate he had turned out to be, implying that if they could have tucked him into a closet and prevented him from stumping, they would have. They bemoaned everything about him down to his mustache.
They noted that Lamb, 33, a handsome (and clean-shaven) military veteran, was straight from central casting and had no extensive political record to contradict stances so moderate and squishy that he could be mistaken, well, for a Republican. They said that Democrats would be hard-pressed to find many more Lambs with which to slaughter the GOP in November.
“When your message is simply I am for new leadership and cleaning up Washington,and you look like you just walked out of an Orvis catalog, you are going to connect with voters on both sides of the aisle,” wrote Salena Zito in The Washington Examiner late last week.
“Lamb never slams Trump,” she observed. “He is not part of the resistance.” He further blunted Republicans’ favorite weapon against Democratic candidates for the House – they’re just would-be pawns of the dreaded Nancy Pelosi! – by running an adthat made clear that he would not support her as his party’s leader in that chamber.
The point that Zito was correctly making was that many of the Democrats who will vie to unseat Republican incumbents in House races in November won’t be able to follow Lamb’s playbook. To get through their party’s primaries, they’ll have to stake out more progressive ground than he did, and adopt a more combative, fiery tone. That could undercut their chances of replicating his success.
Indeed, Democrats’ euphoria over how he fared on Tuesday will give way to sharp internal tensions and sustained quarreling over which sorts of candidates – soft-spoken or bold, centrist or liberal, eclectic or pure – the party would be wisest, from a pragmatic standpoint, to promote. Many Democratic voters want someone less mild and muddled than Lamb.
But if the Pennsylvania results put Democrats in an awkward position, they leave Republicans in an even worse place. What exactly is their best strategy for the midterms?
Not all of their candidates will be leagues better than Saccone, who is no Roy Moore and is himself a military veteran. Sending President Trump into districts that supposedly smile on him isn’t looking like such a hot proposition. The mantra of “tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts” is obviously no panacea.
And with each passing week – each passing day– the Trump administration’s turbulence intensifies and the scandals and scandal-ettes pile up. Yes, it’s a long way from now until November, and much about the national mood and the playing field can change. But in that yawning stretch of time, Trump can also render himself and his enablers even less attractive. I have faith.