Pennsylvania special election: the bigger picture

  • 14 March 2018
  • NormanL
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While the official tally won't be known for a few days, the Democrats do look to have won a special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district. There is a huge amount of pundit reaction to the outcome, but we were interested in this take, from Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende.

First, the local angles in the race mattered a lot:

Much is made of the fact that PA-18 went for Donald Trump in 2016 by 20 percentage points, which represents a massive swing against Republicans.  But this outsized GOP advantage is fairly new.  Southwestern Pennsylvania has been trending Republican now for several decades. As recently as 1998, Democrats held every congressional district in the region. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the currently drawn district by 17 points, and John McCain carried the precincts in the district by 11.  PA-18 was redrawn in 2010, but its 2008 partisanship was unchanged, so we might look back further and see that George W. Bush won it by eight points in 2004 and by five in 2000.  Democrats still maintain a registration advantage here, and a lot of these voters had cast ballots for Democratic candidates during their lives.

It’s also true that Republican Rick Saccone was a lackluster candidate and a poor fit for the 18th. He was a weak fundraiser, and his economic libertarianism was a tough sell there. The previous Republican, Tim Murphy, was more moderate on economic issues, and enjoyed some labor support during his tenure (cut short by a sex scandal).  Lamb, on the other hand, was a good fit, and he positioned himself well.  He was a military veteran who supported gun rights, opposed Nancy Pelosi, and earned the support of organized labor.

But as Trende also notes, there were also bigger issues at play:

You can perhaps explain away about half of the 20-point swing from Trump’s 2016 showing as a result of the district’s Democratic DNA, candidate quality, and the vagaries of special elections.  But you can’t explain it all.  The unpopularity of the president can’t be dismissed.  Monmouth polling had his job approval at around 50 percent in the district.  Even if you adjust for the fact that the pollster overstated the Democrat’s lead in the poll, that still marks a substantial decline in support for Trump.  Elections are largely referenda on the party in power, and in this election, many voters who supported Republicans in 2016 gave Trump the thumb’s-down.

And then there's the kicker -- which ought to be a warning to Republicans everywhere:

Regardless of how the final count turns out, and whatever the results of a likely recount are, the analysis of this election should be the same: It is bad news for Republicans.  There are over 100 districts that are bluer than this one.  While not all of them will feature Republican retirements, Democrats who are perfectly tailored for the electorates, and problematic Republicans, a lot of them will.  The GOP’s House majority is in grave danger in the fall. That was the story before this election, and it remains the story today.

Partisans will dismiss this as fake news, and that Republicans, under the President's guidance, will outperform in the November elections. As comforting as that argument might be for some, history tells us a president's party loses seats in mid-terms -- it doesn't matter who the president is, or what party he he represents. 

Republicans might be able to fend off Demcorats in the Senate. The House is another matter, where many more variables are in play. No matter - this year's elections will be tough, and some will get downright ugly.  Those who support liberty, and liberty-minded candidates, will have to work much harder.

We urge you to find local candidates you like. It's not essential to agree with them on every single issue. But if you can get to 80 percent or better agreement, then get involved. Contact the campaign. Offer to volunteer, put up a yard sign, or place a bumper sticker on your car.  Donate a few dollars if you can, more if you are able. And most of all, talk to the people you know about that candidate. 

In other words, the best way to help is old-fashioned, grassroots activism.