President Donald Trump put his political standing on the line in western Pennsylvania’s special congressional election on Tuesday. He lost.
Republicans and their allies threw every attack in their political arsenal at Democrat Conor Lamb. They apparently fell short. The GOP found that its big corporate tax cut had scant appeal in a district that had voted for Trump by nearly 20 points. They pulled ads on their major achievement.
Many blue-collar voters seemed interested in coming back to their old Democratic loyalties after years of straying Republican. Lamb, a pro-union Marine veteran with deep roots in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, opened the door for them to return home after a long time away.
Lamb’s showing against Republican Rick Saccone – Lamb led by 641 votes with almost all of the votes counted – broadened the Democrats’ opportunities in this fall’s midterm elections. Republicans are vulnerable even in Trump’s 2016 heartland.
The main path for a Democratic takeover of the House runs through Republican-held districts where Hillary Clinton defeated or lost only narrowly to Trump in 2016. But Lamb demonstrated that more moderate Democrats could harvest anti-Trump votes without waging an anti-Trump campaign.
Lamb didn’t have to cast himself as a Trump backlash candidate because he was certain to win the president’s energized foes. So he was free to say -- as he did in a highly disciplined appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday morning -- that he wanted to work with Trump. Lamb cast himself as a unifier and criticized both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for presiding “over a time when we’ve had more and more gridlock and fewer and fewer important things getting done.”
The issues he listed as his priorities were straight off the bread-and-butter menu: transportation, infrastructure, Social Security and Medicare.
Lamb combined the politics of 2018 with the appeals of a much earlier era, when blue-collar districts tilted Democratic and unions could help deliver their members against anti-labor Republicans.
Saccone’s support for anti-union right-to-work laws turned out to be a vulnerability and organized labor was a key component of Lamb’s formidable effort. The highest profile Democrat Lamb brought in to campaign for him was former Vice President Joe Biden, the avatar of working-class Democrats.
Thus did Lamb build up a large majority in the Pittsburgh suburbs in Allegheny County where Trump was clearly a drag on the GOP. But he also posted gains in more rural and small town (and more Republican) parts of the district. Lamb not only ran far ahead of Clinton; he bested Barack Obama’s 2012 showing as well. The race underscored that Clinton’s deep deficits among white voters without college degrees were a continuation of longer-term trends, not an entirely new development.
Daniel Nichanian, a postdoctoral fellow in political science at the University of Chicago, reported that in the parts of the district that are in Westmoreland County, Trump had prevailed by 34 percentage points, and Mitt Romney by 27 points in 2012. Lamb cut Saccone’s margin to 15 points.
At the same time, Republicans suffered from an enthusiasm gap, as they have in almost all of the special elections held since Trump became president. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report noted that Democratic Allegheny County turned out at 67 percent of 2016 levels. Turnout in more Republican Westmoreland County was at just 60 percent.
It was striking that the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a statement claiming that Saccone would come out the winner after “every legal vote is counted.” That word “legal” revealed how far the party has sunk to Trumpian levels: Trying to cover up a humiliation, the GOP intimated that any loss would be the result of illegitimately cast ballots.
Democrats will not be able to re-create everywhere the nearly perfect match between candidate and district that Lamb represented. And in some contests, progressive voters will resist nominees as middle-of-the-road as the former prosecutor who said his main goal was to get both parties “working together.”
Nonetheless, Lamb’s breakthrough should petrify Republicans. The staunchest anti-Trump voters are clearly prepared to vote for Democratic candidates no matter their ideology. Trump’s grip on less affluent voters has clearly weakened. This is also a sign that many of his 2016 supporters were casting ballots more against Hillary Clinton than for him. But November’s vote will not be a referendum on Clinton. It will very much be a judgment on Trump. And we’ve seen in one contest after another how lethal he is to his party.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.