The special election to replace former Rep. Tim Murphy in Pennsylvania’s 18th district was too close to call on Tuesday night, with Democrat Conor Lamb clinging to a 847-vote lead with more than 99 percent of the vote counted. There are more twists to come in the contest, with more absentee votes and a few straggling precincts to be counted. It’s all a considerable amount of drama in a race that won’t flip the House of Representatives or give Democrats much more power. In fact, the district itself may not exist in a few weeks time. But there mere fact that this contest is this close is a massive blow for Republicans.
Just two years ago, the district voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, who squashed Hilary Clinton by 20 points. But Lamb made inroads, garnering the support of the United Mine Workers of America as well as steelworkers, and his message — heavy on the preservation of protecting jobs, pensions, and benefits — resonated with the rural district.
With what was thought to be a sure-win slipping from their grasps, Republicans scrambled and went all-in for Richard Saccone at the last minute. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the president’s inner circle came to the rural Pennsylvania redoubt and delivered campaign speeches. The GOP and outside groups, including the National Rifle Association, poured in nearly $10.7 million into Saccone’s coffers, according to CNN. That accounts for 80 percent of all outside money spent on the race.
The White House desperately wanted to avoid another humiliating loss, especially after Democrat Doug Jones upset the (belatedly) Trump-backed Roy Moore in December in the special election for an Alabama Senate seat. But, even when the vote was too close to call, White House officials laid on the thick spin — reportedly taking solace in the fact that their sure-to-win candidate didn’t get blown out.
Republicans at the White House are pleased tonight with the narrow margin of PA-18. "This isn’t a blowout — for now, we’ll happily take it,” GOP official says.
— Jeff Zeleny (@jeffzeleny) March 14, 2018
Throughout the evening, and even as Saccone mounted a comeback of sorts to tighten the race to it’s current razor-thin margin, observers far and wide were offering up grave assessments of what this night may portend for the GOP.
I don't need to know the final outcome of tonight's race in #PA18 to know the topline takeaway, which is that unless something radically changes between now and November, it's hello Nancy.
— Jeff B. (@EsotericCD) March 14, 2018
Make no mistake: It is a leaning Republican district that is leaning no more.
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) March 14, 2018
Things that are true now that'll be true after PA-18: The president has a 40% approval rating. Not good. The president's party is down by around 10 points on the generic. Not good. The average swing in federal special elections has been 16 pts against the prez's party. Not good.
— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) March 13, 2018
More significantly, if Republicans have repeated struggles defending this sort of safe seat, they may have a hard time preserving the 114 GOP-held seats that are considered more competitive than the Pennsylvania 18th once November’s midterms roll around.
Perspective: There are 114 GOP-held seats more competitive than #pa18 based on Cook PVI, per Dem strategist.
— Alex Seitz-Wald (@aseitzwald) March 14, 2018
Democrats have had a lot of momentum in a number of house races. Last week, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics changed the ratings of 25 other house races, all in favor of Democrats. This includes House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin seat, which changed from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican.”