Analysis: Winners and losers from the Pennsylvania special election

Wednesday , March 14, 2018 - 8:50 AM

Aaron Blake

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

A day later, we still have no official winner in the Pennsylvania special election. Democrat Conor Lamb leads by 0.2 percent and has declared victory, but there are still lots of absentee ballots to be counted, and a recount is still possible.

Yet all of that is kind of beside the point - especially when it comes to the main purpose of special elections, which is telling us about the broader political environment ahead of a general election. And whether Lamb or Republican Rick Saccone wins by a hair means even less given this district will cease to exist at the end of the year.

Which means it’s time to name some winners and losers.



Democrats’ momentum

Regardless of who wins, the fact that Democrats were even in the ballgame in a district that went for President Donald Trump by 20 points suggests good things ahead for them. There are, after all, 114 Republican House districts that are more competitive than this one. And in that way, it’s a whole lot like just about every other special election this year. Democrats have repeatedly overperformed their 2016 showings in both congressional and state legislative seats - often by wide margins. The big reason Democrats don’t have more wins at the House level is simply because the vacancies have come in strongly conservative-leaning districts like this one that would never be on their radar in a normal election. Combined with a big lead on the generic ballot, Tuesday’s result suggests Democrats’ momentum is very much intact.

Democrats’ investment

Democrats outspent Republicans in their disappointing Georgia special election loss last year, thanks in large part to candidate fundraising that helped make it the most expensive congressional race ever. They took a different approach to Pennsylvania, allowing themselves to be far outspent by Republicans - including about 5 to 1 by outside groups. They certainly seemed to get more for their money Tuesday. And unlike some other special elections that wound up close, they didn’t spend so little that it looked like a missed opportunity.

Pragmatism over purity

There is something of an internal battle in the Democratic Party over its way forward. Does it stress liberal purity on issues like abortion, guns and single-payer health care and try to win with a Bernie Sanders-esque brand of populism, or does it run candidates who fit the district? Lamb represented the latter approach. He is nominally opposed to abortion rights and wielded a gun in one of his campaign ads. (He “still loves to shoot,” the narrator assured as all.) Republicans have taken to arguing that Democrats basically ran a Republican candidate on their ticket. That’s a stretch, but it does suggest pragmatism still works for Democrats in regions like this - and that that might be their way back to the majority, given they have to win lots of conservative-leaning districts to make that happen.

The winner

Okay, not exactly original here. But here’s the thing: This was in large part about the candidates. A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday showed the 18th District was evenly split on approval of President Trump (49-49), the congressional generic ballot (42 percent for Republicans, 42 percent for Democrats), and favorable ratings for each party (44 percent each). The electorate seemed about as evenly divided as you can get. That’s a credit to the winner, whoever that may be, and it reinforces that candidates can matter, in the truest sense of that phrase.



The winner

Good news: You’ve just won a special election! Bad news: Your district will not exist after November. Pennsylvania’s congressional map had to be redrawn for the upcoming midterm election thanks to the state Supreme Court, meaning the current 18th District will be chopped up into a number of pieces - rendering this special election even more special than your average one. Sure, the winner might have a leg up in a newly drawn district, but usually when you win a special election, you have a chance to cement yourself into your constituents’ minds for an election cycle or two. That’s not the case here.

Trump’s tariffs

Some have suggested that Trump’s new steel and aluminum tariffs were a way for him to try to save this seat - or win seats like it with heavy manufacturing presences. But polling suggests residents of Pennsylvania’s steel country barely noticed. That Monmouth poll showed likely voters viewed the changes as nearly as likely to hurt the district (36 percent) as help it (43 percent). More importantly, just 4 percent said the announcement actually impacted their votes. And other polling suggests the country as a whole is skeptical of the tariffs. If Trump did this with an eye toward winning the Rust Belt (either for Saccone or himself), it didn’t seem to pan out Tuesday.

The New York Times’s needle

The live results needle from the good folks at the Upshot is a lightning rod. Some people hate it, some people love it, and some people hate how much they love it. I think it’s great. But Tuesday night didn’t cooperate. About 80 minutes into the results, the Times’s Nate Cohn announced that one of four counties in the 18th District, Westmoreland County, would not be providing live precinct results. Given that the needle relies upon such granular data, that rendered it obsolete, and it was shut down. Let’s all make sure our local election officials never let this happen again.

Nate Cohn tweeted “Well folks, we have some bad news. Westmoreland County has told us that they aren’t going to report results by precinct tonight (though they had previously told us they would). The model runs on precinct results so, this is a problem.”

Cohn also tweeted “Alright folks, we’ve shut the needle down. As mentioned earlier, Westmoreland County isn’t going to produce precinct results, as we believed they would. It’s the GOP base of the district. We can’t responsibly make a forecast without data from there.”

Scandal seats

High on the list of factors making this an unnecessary headache for Republicans was the incumbent who resigned. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., succumbed to a rather messy sex scandal in which he urged his mistress to get an abortion, despite being a vocal abortion opponent. And recent history suggests these kinds of scandals imperil seats. Republican Bob Turner won a heavily Democratic district in New York City in 2011 after Rep. Anthony Weiner’s, D-N.Y., resignation. That same election cycle in Upstate New York, Republicans won Rep. Eric Massa’s, D, seat and Democrats won Rep. Chris Lee’s, R, after both incumbents got into trouble. Those are actually 3 of the last 4 House seats to change hands in special elections, and all had a scandal element.

John McCormack tweeted “Note of caution on #PA18 analyses: When a congressional candidate resigns in disgrace because of a sex scandal, his party tends to do poorly in the special election.

See: Anthony Weiner, Chris Lee, Eric Massa”


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