US Politics

Democrat shock victory in Pennsylvania election a wake-up call for rattled Republicans … almost no one is safe, even in Trump country

Democrats exulted in the stunning performance by one of their own in a race that has taken on national implications bodes well for them ahead of November’s midterm elections

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 12:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 9:09pm

The message to Republicans from the Pennsylvania special election was simple: almost no one is safe.

Rattled Republicans were hit with a day-after reality check Wednesday after the startlingly strong performance of a fresh-faced Democrat deep in Trump country.

House Speaker Paul Ryan privately warned his ranks that the election, still officially undecided, should serve as a “wake-up call” as the party tries to defend its majorities in Congress this fall.

Democrats boasted optimistically of an impending wave, and produced a new list of races that suddenly seemed within reach.

Even as ballot counting dragged on with several hundred votes separating Democrat Conor Lamb from Republican Rick Saccone, it was clear the single, short-term contest in western Pennsylvania had sounded the started gun for the battle for control of the House.

Republicans looking for lessons found several. Candidates matter. Campaigns, too. And fundraising. US President Donald Trump can’t save them, it seems, not even in a coal-and-steel region he carried by nearly 20 percentage points just 16 months ago.

Trump won more than 100 districts nationwide by narrower margins than that, arguably making them comparably competitive now.

Democrats produced an updated watch list Wednesday of Republican representatives they suggested might want to think about retirement.

In Pennsylvania, the tally of postal votes ate into Lamb’s lead slightly, though analysts doubt Saccone would make up the deficit.

Officials have seven days to count provisional ballots, and either side can ask for a recount.

“Obviously, this is a very tough environment for Republicans,” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, which supports Republican candidates for the House.

“Now more than ever, candidates and campaigns matter.”

Publicly, Republican officials sought to play down the outcome as a one-off that won’t be replicated as they protect their majority nationwide this fall, especially if voters start to see benefits from the Republican tax bill in paycheques.

They portrayed Lamb, the 33-year-old former prosecutor, as a unicorn-like figure in the Democratic Party whose centrist views – support of gun owner rights, personal opposition to abortion and refusal to back Nancy Pelosi as House floor leader – would not be replicated in other races.

With so many Democrats revved up to run in so many House districts across the country, both sides are expecting a brutal primary season. Republicans are counting on that ending up in their favour, with Democrats nominating more-liberal candidates who won’t survive general elections against Republican rivals.

“The primaries bring them to the left,” Ryan told reporters, and the prospect of more centrist Democratic candidates like Lamb “is something that you’re not going to see repeated”.

But Democrats, and many outside observers, say Trump’s inability to pull Saccone to victory, after swooping in for a rousing campaign rally days before the election, shows the limits of presidential persuasion and the Republican brand.

Trump still wows the crowds. But the president’s supporters are not necessarily a lock for Republican candidates.

Trump campaigned in person for Saccone, a culturally conservative state representative who had been accused of running a lacklustre campaign.

But the election was held just as the White House was whipsawed by political upheaval including a series of staff ousters, including Trump’s sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.

Trump’s own low approval rating no doubt contributed to Saccone’s poor showing, though White House spokesman Raj Shah put a brave face on it.

“The president’s engagement in the race turned what was a deficit for the Republican candidate to what is essentially a tie,” Shah said.

But Lamb, acutely aware of how his district voted in 2016, refused to pile on against the president during the campaign, seeking to minimise the political divisions that have set many Americans on edge.

“I know people voted for the president and voted for me,” Lamb, a former US Marine officer, said.

His performance in a conservative stronghold – Democrats had not even fielded a candidate against the Republican incumbent in recent elections – suggests far more congressional districts might be in play in November than the 24 seats necessary for Democrats to reclaim the House.

The party in power in Washington traditionally loses seats during the midterm elections of a president’s first term. But there are signals that 2018 could be a banner year for Democrats.

They over-performed in five special elections in deep-red districts last year, including in Georgia, Montana and South Carolina. And in a special election last December, Doug Jones became Alabama’s first Democratic senator in 25 years.

Strategists point to unprecedented Democratic grass-roots activism, strong fundraising, and competitive candidates that have combined to animate voters this year.

“We knew the midterms were going to be difficult,” House Republican Tom Cole told CNN, acknowledging that “our majority is at stake.”

“We’re certainly not in a state of denial or complacency on our side,” he said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse