Pennsylvania 18: A Red Flag for the GOP

by Stuart Rothenberg March 16, 2018 · 9:07 AM EDT

The results in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District confirm problems for Republicans.

The size of the Democratic general election wave is still unclear, but something is happening. Districts won comfortably by President Donald Trump in 2016 are more competitive now, which suggests that districts won by Hillary Clinton are likely to go Democratic in the midterms.

It looks like Democrat Conor Lamb either narrowly won a congressional district that went for Trump by 20 points, or he lost it narrowly. Either way, that’s bad news for the GOP.

If GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone ends up winning, Republicans may heave a sigh of relief that they didn’t lose a seat. But that is not the story.

The real story is Saccone badly underperforming Trump.

Clearly, either some Trump voters didn’t turn out, or other Trump voters defected to Lamb. Or both things happened.

No matter what, the result is a problem for Republicans in western Pennsylvania but also in other suburban areas.

Of course, there are always reasons to be cautious about reading too much into the results of a special election, especially when we don’t have exit polling to help us understand who voted and how demographic groups behaved.

Lamb, 33, was widely regarded as the better candidate — more articulate, more attractive and more energetic. The Marine veteran served as an assistant U.S. attorney and ran as a moderate by applauding Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, opposing new laws restricting gun ownership and announcing that he would not vote for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker.

But Saccone, 60, benefited from the district’s fundamentals, since Trump carried it by a convincing 20 points in 2016.

The district is over 93 percent white, and 65 percent of residents have less than a four-year college degree.

Saccone is an Air Force veteran who is serving his fourth term in the Pennsylvania House. “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” the Republican said of his support for the president.

Saccone and his GOP allies argued that Lamb would support the Democratic agenda and oppose Trump’s initiatives if elected to Congress.

The president went to the district to endorse Saccone and energize Republicans — and Trump voters — to turn out Tuesday. Special elections, after all, are often about turnout.

The Pennsylvania results show that Trump did not turn out enough of his voters to elect Saccone. He may have brought some Saccone voters to the polls, but he didn’t do what Republicans will need for the midterms.

The results in Pennsylvania’s 18th — not who won but how the district performed in the special election — is likely to concern Republican officeholders and strategists.

Finally, the election demonstrated once again that it is unwise to over-value second-tier polls in state and local races.