Five lessons from Pennsylvania as Democrat holds narrow lead in US House race

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In the election version of March Madness, a closely watched special election for the U.S. House went into overtime on Tuesday night in Pennsylvania, as with almost all of the votes counted in the race, Democrat Conor Lamb held a less than 700 vote lead over GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone, with absentee ballots being counted after midnight and later on Wednesday.

“GOP voters either stayed home or flipped to Lamb. It’s as simple as that,” said political analyst Stu Rothenberg, explaining why the district could be so tight after a 20 point win for President Donald Trump in 2016.

The numbers in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District bore out a familiar pattern since the election of President Trump, as Democratic voters have been more energized to get to the polls, while turnout in reliably GOP areas has fallen back.

Even without a declared winner, here are five things we learned from this race in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.

1. Democrats still have the election momentum in 2018. As mentioned above, this was not a good result for the GOP. This was not a Democratic district. This was not a purple district. This was a solid Republican district outside of Pittsburgh that went for President Donald Trump by 20 points. This is Arnold Palmer territory in Latrobe, down the road from the “Trump House” of the 2016 elections. No matter who wins, it was yet another example from the past year of more Democrats getting out to vote, and a lot of Republicans staying home. “A narrow GOP win or loss in this district is a really bad sign for them, fullstop,” said Sean Trende, an elections analyst for Real Clear Politics.

2. The Saturday night Trump rally did not turn the tide. The races in 2018 for Congress will be partly a referendum on President Trump, just as the races in 2010 were a referendum on Barack Obama. Last weekend, Mr. Trump brought his campaign bravado to Moon Township, Pennsylvania, and held a rally that made it feel like it was 2016 all over again. But the results weren’t the same in that area, or in the rest of the 18th District. Would it be different if the Trump name was actually on the ballot? That’s a question for 2020, not this year. Remember, Democrats lost big for Congress in 2010, and Obama won two years later. That type of outcome cannot be ruled out in 2018 and 2020.

3. Other Republicans are watching and worrying. As Republicans in the House gather for a closed door meeting on Wednesday about the 2018 mid-terms, many GOP lawmakers will be wondering about their own fortunes in November. If the Democrats could come close to winning a seat where President Trump had won by 20 points in 2016, what does that say about their own chances. My father routinely compares elections to the tide on a beach. Sometimes your kid builds a sand castle that survives the high tide. But sometimes that high tide is very high, and the castle gets washed away. It’s the same thing with elections. If you didn’t win by much last time, this environment will have you worried.

4. Not all party members are party line. One thing that’s happened in the last 20 years in both parties is the near eradication of more conservative Democrats and more liberal Republicans. Democrat Conor Lamb would have likely been called a Blue Dog ten years ago, or a “Boll Weevil” back in the Reagan years – a Democrat, but not one who toed the line on every liberal issue. That’s how you get a majority in the Congress, is by having some lawmakers win districts which otherwise might not be attainable. Republicans said Lamb ran like a Republican, so a loss wouldn’t be that big of a deal – except it could be repeated in other red districts as well.

5. Every vote counts and every vote counter is different. As the votes came in on Tuesday night, and the race dramatically tightened as the hour grew late, it was another time to reflect on how important it is to fight for every single vote in an election. It was also a reminder of how counties across the United States conduct elections differently. Many now count absentee ballots first, along with early votes. Two of the counties from Tuesday night counted absentees after the election day ballots had been tallied, one changed course and started counting absentees just before midnight. But a fourth county will wait to finalize the numbers on Wednesday, keeping the winner of this race a mystery for now.

Who is going to win? The edge seems to be with Lamb and Democrats right now – but as with every election – wait until all the votes are counted.


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