March may be do or die time for Congressional Democrats. Democrats ended the year on a high note with their surprise victory in Alabama but that was against possibly the worst Republican you could screenplay for electoral theater. And Democratic victories in Virginia, New Jersey and legislative special elections across the country occurred in either blue/ing states or at a time when the Trump White House was largely in disarray. Now, reports indicate that is not going to the case for 2018.
March’s contest will occur in a ruby red district in Pennsylvania once represented by Representative Tim Murphy. Murphy resigned after reports surfaced stating he urged a woman with whom he had an affair to get an abortion.
The contest features two military veterans, 33 year old Democrat Conor Lamb and State Rep. Rick Saccone. Due to state rules both candidates were not chosen by their parties voters but rather party committees meaning they are both still introducing themselves to the districts voters.
The race for Democrats presents an opportunity to actually compete or steal a seat in the Midwest and Rust Belt that swung heavily for Trump last year. If Democrats can do so here then the sky may be the limit for the party next year.
In actuality, it is critical Democrats do well here if they have any hopes of retaking the House. While 23 Republicans sit in districts Clinton won and the generic ballot decisively favors the party, history tells us it is extremely difficult to dislodge incumbents even in swing districts. More so, 11 Democrats sit in Trump districts and more than half our in the Rust Belt. If Democrats cannot make inroads here, how can their incumbents hold onto their heavily pro-Trump districts?
Focusing back on the Pennsylvania race, the district is a mix of working class rural areas and affluent suburbs populated mostly by white voters. Historically, the district was a haven for conservative Democrats who were pro-life and pro 2nd Amendment. This shows by the district having more registered Democrats than Republicans. But, since that time, both the affluent suburbs and rural areas have moved red as the national Democratic party has tainted the local Democratic brand there.
Republicans are bracing for a tough race in the district while national Democrats seem to not understand how important the contest is for their Congressional chances. The Cook Political Report has the race as “Leans Republican” while Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has Republicans favored.
But who wins may not be as important as how Lamb and Saccone do. Lamb is running as a centrist Democrat (ask Jon Ossoff how that worked out) while Saccone is running as a Trump type candidate. Saccone, on a radio show, famously said, “I was Trump before there was Trump.”
This sets up an interesting dynamic in the district. The district’s affluent suburbs take up most of the Southern portions of Allegheny County. The rest of the district is made up of the largely rural Washington and Beaver counties. Trump won the district by 20 points and took even the suburban portions of the district but the suburbs are exactly where is unpopular nationally. Lamb’s centrist strategy seems tailored to appeal to these voters but in turn lessen worry among rural voters.
Lamb is sure to outrun Clinton in the district but the data will tell the tale of where and by how much. By themselves, suburban voters cannot give the race to Lamb and Saccone is specifically appealing to rural, pro-Trump voters with his pitch. It might cost him suburban voters to so closely tie himself to Trump but he seems to have some leeway with the district’s partisan lean.
Of course, there is also the caveat March is almost three months away. Current economic projections look rosy, especially among blue-collar economic sectors and tax reform will have started to be felt in voters paychecks by February. And Trump can cause a storm with his tweets, a international crisis could occur or a dozen other unknown variables could swing the race.
The candidates also matter and how well they match up with the district. Lamb, running as a centrist, has chosen to emphasize local issues such as fighting the opioid epidemic and his criminal justice record.
Avoiding the hot button issues of guns and abortion is crucial for Lamb. Lamb has chosen to simply say “choice is the law of the land” and his website says he supports gun rights. It is not hard to see Saccone tying him to pro-choice, pro-gun control national Democrats.
“This district as a whole is a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment type of place and the Republican nominee is kind of standard issue conservative Republican on those issues,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant based in Pennsylvania. “The district is not going to elect someone who can’t tell you where they stand on abortion and isn’t a strong Second Amendment supporter.”
Saccone is certainly pro-life and pro-2nd Amendment. He is trying to make his record as a legislator an asset by arguing he knows how to get things done, knows how to represent the district and Lamb is unprepared for the job. Unsurprisingly, Saccone identities as a low-tax Republican and stands with the GOP’s tax reform success and stronger military priorities. In an effort to reach out to affluent suburban swing voters he says he will work to fight for all his constituents in a bipartisan fashion.
The biggest worry for Republicans here is not where the suburbs go (though they should keep an eye on it) but rather turnout. Democratic victories nationally have been fueled not by convincing Trump voters in massive numbers to swing their way but rather not to come out and vote. In Democratic victories in Oklahoma and New Hampshire legislative contests, GOP turnout has dropped more than 50 percent from 2016. In Alabama the GOP drop in turnout was a whopping 51 percent compared to 7 percent for Democrats.
The media is largely characterizing the race as bellwether for 2018 and they are right. But for the wrong reasons. The district is more Republican than many swing districts up for grabs next year but the mix of suburban and rural areas with a large number of white voters is similar to many Midwest swing districts.
By the media hyping the contest as a bellwether Democratic chances might sink further. Democrats running in special elections have performed best when their contests fly under the radar. For example, in June, Jon Ossoff raised $30 million for a competitive GA special election Trump won by one point. Ossoff lost by four points. Archie Parnell, running in a South Carolina district Trump won by over twenty points, raised barely anything and lost by three points. Parnell’s race received little attention while all eyes were on Georgia and yet he lost by the narrowest margin of any Democratic Congressional candidate this year.
Parnell’s narrow loss was driven by a sharp drop in turnout among Republicans and it was a warning sign for the GOP. The same dynamic could be at play in Pennsylvania unless the GOP finds a way to motivate its base (tying Lamb to Pelosi would be a start). Democrats should not expect to win this contest but they should expect to make inroads. It is where these inroads are and how GOP turnout is that will indicate for both parties where 2018 is headed.
On an unrelated note: Happy New Year!