Opinion writer

In the Pennsylvania 18th District special election, with 99 percent of the vote in (not all absentee ballots yet counted), Democrat Conor Lamb leads Republican Rick Saccone by several hundred votes. Saccone has not yet conceded, but polling expert David Wasserman says there aren’t enough votes left to change the outcome. It shouldn’t have been remotely competitive.

The race should be a blaring wake-up call to Republicans (“Commence panicking!”). This blue-collar district in the Rust Belt, ideally designed for President Trump, gave him a 20-point margin of victory 16 months ago. Moreover, the district has consistently voted Republican over the past few election cycles, and to top it off, Trump personally visited there twice, most recently on Saturday. Trump even announced tariffs designed to placate steel workers. And yet that 20-point advantage disappeared, thanks to massive Democratic turnout.

Republicans were out spinning gullible reporters. We expected much worse! This will motivate our voters! Nonsense. This is nothing short of a disaster for Republicans. Here’s why:

There are at nearly 120 seats that had a GOP point-spread in 2016 of fewer than 20 points. If this special election is a sign of things to come, Republicans mulling retirement might want to finalize their departure plans; those running in swing districts might want to start looking for new jobs.

Democrats have renewed hope of winning back white, working-class Trump voters. In suburban districts where Trump is already struggling with women, college-educated voters and younger voters, we could see a blue tsunami.

The picture at the national level does not look any brighter for Republicans. The latest CBS News poll finds Trump’s overall approval mired at 38 percent, while 57 percent disapproval. His rating among independents is virtually identical (37/54 percent). There are significant majorities that disapprove of his handling of gun policy (53 disapprove/37 approve) and of the Russia investigation (58/31) . He is in negative territory (50/42) on North Korea, but his rating has improved considerably since he was threatening “Little Rocket Man” (59/34) and announced he would meet with Kim Jong Un. (Still, 64 percent remain “uneasy” about the situation.) On the issue as to whether Trump has helped the middle class, 30 percent say he has helped, 32 percent say he has hurt and 34 percent say he hasn’t made much of a difference. Interestingly, while Republicans give Trump wildly high marks in other areas (88 percent approve of his handling of the economy, 83 percent of his overall performance), just 67 percent of Republicans say he has helped.

Trump’s best score is on the economy, but even there he isn’t getting credit for what most voters have been saying in recent polls is an excellent economy. He gets 46 approval, 48 percent disapproval; independents approve by a narrow margin, 47 to 44 percent.

The PA-18 result, polling over the past few weeks (both nationally and in swing states) and constant staff turmoil at the White House (more firings to come this week, we are told!) paint a picture of a president in meltdown mode. Fewer and fewer Republicans, even those in solidly red districts, will want to be seen with a struggling president, even if they are not willing to speak out against him or vote against his policy preferences.

In short, the vast majority of Republican officeholders will continue walking the tightrope. Too afraid of offending the GOP base, which is still solidly behind Trump, yet too afraid of generating a backlash among Democrats and independents, they are the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. They dare not dash to one side or another (solidly pro- or anti-Trump), but they are defenseless against the charge that they are enablers of a deeply unpopular president.

If Democrats play their cards right, in November they’ll pitch a message to the 66 percent who say Trump has either hurt or not done much for the middle class. The classic bread-and-butter economic agenda for Democrats, focusing on wage growth, rising health-care costs and increased income inequality, will pay dividends in many swing and even red states where economic gains have lagged.

However, Democrats also have the opportunity to be the adults in the room — presenting themselves as the human guardrails for the remainder of the Trump presidency. Unlike the GOP, Democrats can credibly promise to provide appropriate oversight, to investigate diligently conflicts of interest and other malfeasance, to rein in presidential excesses and to respond to immediate concerns about “dreamers,” gun safety and rising health-care costs. That’s a message that will play well in suburbs where responsible adults conduct organized lives, follow the rules and expect a modicum of competence from government.

The more Trump appears out of control, scattered and desperate, the stronger the case for divided government to get through the next couple of years. The last thing voters concerned about North Korea, Trump thwarting the Russia investigation or Trump wrecking the economy with a trade war should want is a continuation of one-party government, with GOP extremists egging him on and GOP senators rubber-stamping every goofball he nominates for an executive branch job. A promise to restore balance, sobriety and normalcy has a lot to recommend itself these days. Just ask voters in the PA-18.

Read more:

What a Democrat succeeding in Trump country would mean for November

Three big takeaways from Trump’s humiliating Pennsylvania failure

The revolt in Trump country should petrify Republicans