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Opinion Three big takeaways from Trump’s humiliating Pennsylvania failure

Democrat Conor Lamb declared victory on March 14 in a U.S. House special election in Pennsylvania, but Republican Rick Saccone said “it’s not over yet.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Democrat Conor Lamb is clinging to a lead of around 600 votes in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, but most news organizations have refrained from calling the race. Still, it looks likely Lamb will hang on, and win or lose, we now know that this district — which President Trump won by 20 points — swung in a huge way toward Democrats, making this a major rebuke of Trump and Republicans, deep in the heart of Trump country.

Three key takeaways:

The House map probably just got broader. Given Lamb’s success in a district of this type, Ben Ray Luján, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and his aides are now reassessing whether there are more districts out there that are heavy on working-class white voters and went big for Trump that Democrats should contest beyond the current DCCC target list of around 100 districts, a source familiar with internal deliberations tells me.

Luján today will re-contact a number of potential recruits in numerous districts who are not yet willing to take the plunge, but might be more inclined after last night, the source says.

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Meanwhile, McClatchy reports that even Republicans are now worried that Lamb’s strong showing means that other deep-red districts may now be in play. One big question is whether Democrats, who are currently contesting a lot of diverse, well-educated, suburban, professional-heavy districts, will expand their reach into more blue-collar rural, exurban, and small-town districts. More retirements — or more Democrats declaring candidacies — in places like the one in which Lamb prevailed will be a key tell.

What a Democrat succeeding in Trump country would mean for November

The Trump/GOP agenda may be a big albatross for Republicans. Republicans had banked heavily on selling their tax cuts to voters as proof that they’re getting things done for working- and middle-class people. But in the final days, Republicans dialed down their messaging about the tax cuts, because it wasn’t working. Lamb appears to have kept GOP foe Rick Saccone’s margins down in the deep-red counties while also doing very well in the Pittsburgh suburbs, suggesting that the tax plan is not working as planned either among blue-collar white Trump voters or among more-educated suburban whites, who were supposed to respond to it by suppressing their gag reflex about Trump and voting on taxes instead.

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg suggests that the results show not just that the GOP tax plan is failing, but also that the whole Trump/GOP agenda is an albatross for Republicans. Trump has fully embraced Paul Ryan’s plutocratic agenda — trying and failing to repeal a huge chunk of the safety net and passing a huge permanent tax cut for the wealthy and corporations — while continuing the drumbeat of racist and xenophobic cultural provocations (with a hasty, haphazard gesture toward protectionism in the form of the tariffs thrown in). But Lamb apparently won back large numbers of disaffected blue-collar Democrats, or at least outperformed Hillary Clinton among them. As Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman told me: “He overperformed Clinton by the most in old union precincts.”

These are exactly the people who are supposed to believe Trump when he tells them his tax plan is good for them. They didn’t. And the surge of suburban voters against Trump appeared to continue. In short: The pluto-populism isn’t working.

Democrats can do better among blue-collar whites. In his speech to supporters last night, Lamb stressed the importance of organized labor to the future of the Democratic Party, spoke up for the value of unions and work, and emphasized the importance of maintaining bedrock programs such as Medicare and Social Security. He had also campaigned against the GOP tax cuts as a giveaway to the rich — and, importantly, blasted the tax cuts for creating deficits that would require deep cuts to entitlements, harming the middle class.

Yes, last night’s results can be explained by Lamb’s qualities as a candidate — he is a former prosecutor and ex-Marine whose cultural stances and temperament made him a good fit for the district. But if anything, this underscores the point: If Democrats can get good candidates who stress the importance of labor (which worked hard for Lamb’s win) and popular social insurance programs, they can perform better among the very blue-collar voters who were lured away by Trump’s phony economic populism — and who, apparently, are now not swayed by Trump’s ongoing racial and cultural appeals, if the failure of Trump’s burst of racism and authoritarianism at his last-minute rally is any indication.

There is a robust argument underway among Democrats over whether they should prioritize outreach to the suburban and educated white voters, mostly women, who are deeply distressed and energized by Trump, or redouble their focus on the blue-collar whites that Trump lured away. But last night’s results perhaps suggest that the GOP agenda is unpopular among both those demographics (as some Democratic pollsters have noted), meaning that this may be a false choice. If that holds, it will ensure a broad map with many districts seriously in play — and a better shot for Democrats at capturing the House.


Update: We probably don’t have enough data to know for sure if Lamb won back large numbers of blue collar whites and/or disaffected Dems, because depressed turnout among Trump voters might have been a factor in Lamb’s apparent victory. But we can reasonably speculate, based on what we know now, that he overperformed Clinton among them. I’ve tweaked the language to take that into account.

The Pennsylvania race proves it: Trump is a weight around the GOP’s neck

* NBC CALLS IT FOR LAMB: NBC’s Steve Kornacki explains the decision, noting that Lamb slightly bested Saccone in absentee ballots from deep-red Washington County. All that’s left now is a couple of hundred absentees from Greene County, a couple of hundred provisional ballots and a few dozen military ballots.

That would seem to mean that there are too few uncounted votes left to close Lamb’s lead, which now stands at more than 600 votes. Saccone’s campaign is still exploring the possibility of a recount, but as Kornacki notes, the latest tally makes Lamb the “apparent winner.”

* PENNSYLVANIA SHOWS GOP IS IN TROUBLE: CNN’s Harry Enten explains why last night’s results in Pennsylvania are such bad news for the GOP:

In the average of seven special elections before this one, Democrats were outperforming their partisan baseline (based off the previous two presidential results in the district) by 16 percentage points. In Pennsylvania 18, Lamb, the Democrat, outperformed it by 22 percentage points … When parties do well in special elections, they usually do well in the midterms.

As Enten also notes, Trump’s low approval signals Republicans may be on track to losing the House popular vote by 10 points, which if it holds would be enough to flip the chamber.

* REPUBLICANS PANIC ABOUT PENNSYLVANIA: The Washington Examiner reports that some Republicans are worried that the Lamb loss means many more House GOPers are vulnerable than previously thought:

Most worrisome to senior Republicans — that incumbents used to electoral booms under President Barack Obama are ill-prepared for what’s coming. “It’s getting too late for some of these members to turn things around,” said GOP strategist Jeff Burton, a former National Republican Congressional Committee official who now runs the Burton Strategy Group. “Some incumbents could lose in November who don’t even think they have races right now.”

Many of these Republicans probably weren’t even in office the last time there was a Democratic wave, so they have no experience of running in such an environment.

* CREATIVE SPIN FROM TRUMP ALLIES: This take on the meaning of the Pennsylvania loss is pretty interesting:

To Trump allies, the poor showing Tuesday was not a reflection on the president, but instead a reminder that the GOP should be embracing candidates who emulate the unscripted former reality TV star in the Oval Office. “You can’t run a standard campaign,” former Trump campaign adviser Ed Brookover vented. “These kind of regular, Republican establishment campaigns, running as a conservative, isn’t going to work.”

Or maybe the lesson is that both Trumpism and Orthodox Ryanism are failing with voters?

* KOCHS TO RATCHET UP SPENDING: Bloomberg reports that the Koch brothers’ political network is set to spend many millions more on ads attacking vulnerable Democratic senators for opposing Trump’s tax plan:

The ads are part of the roughly $400 million the network expects to spend on state and federal policy and politics during the two-year election cycle … The Koch network’s campaign over the tax law will try to show Americans that the legislation, signed by Trump in December, will improve the economy and their lives.

If the Pennsylvania race (where Republicans actually ratcheted down their messaging on the tax cuts and appear to have lost) doesn’t give them pause about this, nothing will.

* TRUMP’S NEXT SECRETARY OF STATE FITS HIS WORLDVIEW: The New York Times reports that by firing Rex Tillerson and nominating Mike Pompeo as his replacement, Trump is installing someone who will frequently echo his “worldview”:

Mr. Pompeo … has been an enthusiastic defender of the president’s policies, to the point that many senior current and former C.I.A. officials worried that he was far too political for the job. … Mr. Tillerson and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, had run something of a tag team to keep the president in check … One senior administration official … last week described Mr. Trump’s growing frustration at being hemmed in by his two principal national security cabinet members.

Great, so Trump is increasingly surrounding himself with people who will tell him what he wants to hear about global complexities. What could go wrong?

* AND CARSON WANTED THAT $31,000 DINING ROOM SET: A spokesman for HUD secretary Ben Carson initially denied he was involved in picking a $31,000 furniture set for his office dining room. But CNN reports that newly released emails undercut that denial:

An August email from a career administration staffer, with the subject line “Secretary’s dining room set needed,” to Carson’s assistant refers to “printouts of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.”

The latest explanation from a spokesperson is that Carson’s wife was merely involved in picking out the style of the set, apparently meaning the Carsons didn’t know the price.