You may have missed the starting shot, but the midterm races officially began last week with the Texas primaries. On Tuesday, voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District head to the polls for a special election to fill the seat left vacant by Republican Tim Murphy.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic — or downright giddy — 2018 promises to be as significant, if not more so given the stakes, as 2010, when Republicans wrested the House of Representatives from Democrats amid tea party turbulence and early chants of “repeal and replace.”
Whether November will produce a blue wave crashing down on a crimson tide — or an estrogen rout of the testosterone swamp — remains to be seen. But early signs suggest that Republicans will have to scratch and fight to keep their dwindling majorities (41 have left or aren’t seeking reelection) in the House and Senate.
Even, perhaps, in Texas.
Republican voters, who are usually more attentive to primaries than Democrats, did outperform in turnout there — 1.5 million to just 1 million. One clear Democratic winner was three-term Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a youngish (45 ), Kennedy-esque liberal who won a three-way Senate primary to face Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in the fall.
Cruz is up for reelection following a dramatic first term in Washington, which has included the 2013 government shutdown he essentially engineered (even on the House side) and, memorably, a 21-hour floor speech against Obamacare that detoured into a reading of “Green Eggs and Ham.” Cruz’s attachment to childlike expression seems stable. In an attempt to deflate O’Rourke’s primary victory, Cruz released a country-song radio ad that croons:
I remember reading stories liberal Robert wanted to fit in/ So he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin.
Cruz’s insinuation that O’Rourke changed his name to appeal to Latino voters is true only if you count the Democrat’s toddler years as predictive of future shape-shifting. Apparently, Beto, short for Roberto, became his nickname when, as a small child, he lived among mostly Latino neighbors in El Paso. To put an end to this silliness, O’Rourke produced a photo of himself as a tyke wearing a sweater emblazoned with “Beto.” One would think Cruz would be more sympathetic to a child just trying to fit in, especially since he tweaked his own given middle name, Edward, to become Ted.
If this were a race between Robert O’Rourke and Rafael Cruz, who knows?
The upcoming Pennsylvania congressional race is a sorta sordid affair, thanks to the previous occupant of the seat in play. Murphy, a professed abortion opponent, seemed to suggest that a woman with whom he’d had an affair should seek an abortion when the two thought she might be pregnant. Incensed when she spotted a March for Life posting on his public Facebook account, she texted him: “And you have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week . . . ”
If Republicans were looking for an undramatic candidate to replace Murphy, they succeeded with the lackluster Rick Saccone, whose campaign has failed to bestir enthusiasm and even prompted a scolding from GOP leadership. The potential embarrassment of losing in a district Donald Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points is bad enough. Worse would be the conclusion that Trump’s support is a deficit rather than a plus, as was the case in Alabama’s special Senate election last year when Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones.
Meanwhile, Saccone’s Democratic opponent, Conor Lamb, could have significant crossover appeal. An Ivy League-educated Marine veteran and former prosecutor, Lamb reportedly likes shooting machine guns and has suggested that he wouldn’t support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as speaker should Democrats win control in November.
In 2010, Republicans hailed their triumphant sweep as a referendum on President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act. Tuesday’s election may not foretell the future — and the Lamb/Saccone match is, indeed, a special circumstance — but any Republican loss now would give Democrats a lift and create momentum for races to come.
As President Trump marches on to his own very special drummer, lending status to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by agreeing to meet with him and slapping allies with punitive tariffs, it couldn’t come at a better time.