WASHINGTON — The final results in Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania may still be in doubt, but the political takeaways are pretty clear.
Although the race was too close to call Wednesday morning, Democrat Conor Lamb clung to a small lead and claimed victory over his Republican opponent, Rick Saccone,
Even if Saccone manages to pull ahead — and that’s a big if — Republicans will not be cheering a razor-thin win in a district that President Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016.
Republicans flooded the GOP-friendly district with campaign cash. They dispatched Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. They pitched their just-passed tax cut and threw everything they had at the Democratic candidate.
None of that seemed to work.
Here are our top takeaways from Tuesday’s vote:
Democrats can win back Trump voters
That has been a vexing question for Democrats since so many blue-collar voters who supported President Obama in his 2008 and 2012 elections abandoned Hillary Clinton in favor of Trump in 2016.
This Pennsylvania district outside Pittsburgh was not considered competitive until this election — the Democrats did not even field a candidate in the last two elections. But Tuesday’s results show that the right kind of Democrat can win over both the suburban and working-class voters who favored Republicans in previous elections.
The list of target districts may expand
More than 40 House Republicans have already said they will retire or seek another office rather than run for re-election in 2018. And House GOP strategists were on edge ahead of Tuesday, fearing that a loss in such a GOP-leaning district would hurt morale and create an ominous narrative for the fall elections.
Democrats, meanwhile, were giddy.
“Republicans just lost a Trump +20 district, and the majority of targeted Republicans should seriously question their reelection prospects,” read a Wednesday morning missive from the House Democrats’ campaign committee. “Stay tuned for more Republican retirements in districts more competitive than PA-18.”
Even before Tuesday’s results, national GOP strategists were trashing Saccone as a lackluster candidate who couldn’t raise money and didn’t have a strong message.
“The Rick Saccone campaign was a joke,” Corry Bliss, head of a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Tuesday.
Midterm elections are always tough for the party in power, and with Trump’s low approval ratings, the GOP was already bracing for losses. “In order to win in a tough environment we need good candidates who run strong campaigns,” Bliss said.
Meanwhile, the Democrats had an ideal candidate in Lamb, an ex-Marine and former prosecutor who fit with the conservative blue-collar mold of the Pennsylvania district. Lamb benefited from the anti-Trump enthusiasm among Democrats but the 33-year-old ex-Marine made the race more competitive with his compelling resume and fundraising prowess.
Republicans discounted Lamb’s strong showing, saying he ran as a Republican-lite candidate who opposes abortion and supports gun rights.
“I think the candidate that’s going to win this race is the candidate that ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Wednesday morning as he and others awaited a final call.
Super PACs can’t fix everything
Republican-aligned groups spent more than $10 million on the Pennsylvania race, compared to less than $2 million spent by Democratic interests. All to keep a House seat that should have been a GOP gimme — and that will likely vanish by November, when a new congressional map is expected to be in place.
Democrats are still worried about a lopsided GOP financial advantage heading into the 2018 elections, but less so after Tuesday.
Tax-cut strategy unproven
Before Tuesday’s election, Republican strategists said the growing popularity of the tax bill Republicans enacted in December would give them a positive message and help them keep losses to a minimum.
But Republican groups spent millions on tax-cut TV ads in the Pennsylvania race, only to drop that message late in the race, the according to a POLITICO analysis of advertising data. The GOP switched to harder-edged issues, such as immigration and crime, in the closing days, that analysis said.
“Any Democrat who is worried that the tax plan would be a savoir for Republicans should wake up today knowing that it was an albatross instead,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic campaign strategist.
Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Ryan-aligned super PAC, said this race was an outlier and the tax cut would still be a persuasive pitch heading into the fall.