Opinion writer

The Post’s Dan Balz writes: “There is no way for Republicans to sugarcoat what happened in southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday. It’s true that campaigns and candidates matter, but fundamentals often matter more. That’s why Republicans should be nervous about November.” At least outwardly, Republicans were well into the spin cycle.

Conor Lamb is a Republican-lite!  No, he’s pro-choice, pro-Obamacare, pro-universal background checks, pro-union and anti-Trump tax plan. (If that makes him a “Republican-lite,” the GOP better bag all the ads accusing Democrats of being one step removed from socialists. You cannot be both a pawn of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a “Republican-lite” candidate.) Bellyaching that their opponent sounded moderate seems like a weird strategy for Republicans, frankly.

Our guy was a rotten candidate! Yes, but any plain-wrap Republican should have won a district tilted this heavily Republican. (“The Cook [Political Report] analysis rates each district along an ideological scale. The Pennsylvania district showed a Republican lean of plus-11. More than 100 districts nationwide are roughly equal to or far less Republican in their ideological leanings.”)

President Trump made the race closer! C’mon. Without Trump, this was a safe red seat; with him, it was a disaster. Ron Brownstein observes:

Above all, Lamb’s apparent win testified to how much energy opposition to Trump has ignited among Democrats everywhere. Lamb’s strong showing continued the pattern evident in special elections and other scheduled contests since 2016: Democratic candidates are consistently coming much closer to matching Hillary Clinton’s total number of votes in these jurisdictions than Republicans are to matching Trump’s. (By one calculation, Lamb won about 80 percent as many votes as Clinton did in the district, while Saccone generated only about 53 percent as many as Trump.) That’s consistent with the imbalances in partisan enthusiasm that usually trigger big midterm losses for a sitting president’s party—especially when his approval rating is lagging, as Trump’s is now.

The bad news is that wherever Trump goes this fall, he may create a backlash that overwhelms any help he might afford a Republican. Any race that is close, in other words, would be a poor locale for him to appear. He can go only where the race isn’t competitive, I suppose. (And if they send him to closed-door fundraisers, he’s likely to make a horrendous gaffe, as he did on Wednesday, when he bragged about lying to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.) Maybe they can find some more wall prototypes to inspect.

Republicans in the Pennsylvania race tried to talk about the tax plan; that didn’t work, so they switched gears late in the race. At least one poll, however, showed that what voters cared most about was health care. The Democratic PPP exit poll found: “Health care was ranked as a top issue for 52% of voters (15% saying it was the most important issue and another 37% saying it was very important). Only 19% said it was not that important or not important at all. ” And Democrats owned that issue. “Lamb won big especially among voters for whom health care was a top priority. Among voters who said health care was the most important issue for them, Lamb beat Rick Saccone 64-36 and among the broader group of voters who said it was either the most important or a very important issue Lamb beat Saccone 62-38.”

As Brownstein notes, Democrats still may do best in suburban and urban areas, rather than rural ones. (“Republicans could face a stiffer challenge than they expected in at least some blue-collar and non-urban districts where Trump has remained relatively popular—places like upstate New York, downstate Illinois, and parts of Michigan and Iowa. But Lamb’s apparent win—which turned on big margins in Allegheny, the district’s county with the most college graduates—also suggests that the epicenter of Republican vulnerability will remain the suburban white-collar districts most visibly alienated from Trump.”) The good news is that the same message could work everywhere: Don’t send Trump more reinforcements. Protect health care. Stop the Goldman Sachs economic policies.

The longer House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and his troops cling to the president, afraid to offend the Trump cultists by raising any whiff of criticism, the bigger the blue tsunami might be.