Kuk James | Dartmouth College
Last night, the Republican Party received news of another stunning defeat in a special election in a safely Republican area. This time, however, the defeat was not the result of their nominating an enormously flawed candidate like Roy Moore or an unwillingness to put financial support behind a candidate in a close race. Conor Lamb, a Democrat outspent 3-to-1 by his Republican opponent Rick Saccone, eked out the narrowest of victories in a Pennsylvania's 18th district, an area which President Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Pundits could point to this special election as being a bellwether regarding a number of issues from Trump’s proposed taxes on foreign steel and aluminium to the state of the current Republican party itself. However, in many respects, Lamb’s victory seems to be largely a referendum on Trump himself- and it may serve as an indication that Trumpism is failing even in the reddest of Republican areas.
From the beginning, Rick Saccone endeavoured to link himself closely to the President, directly invoking the idea that the election was a referendum on the Trump presidency and telling supporters he was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” a reference to the protectionist and isolationist policies he had long championed during his career as a state legislator. The pseudo-historian David Barton, who has made a living propagating the false idea that separation of church and state are not actually guaranteed by the Constitution because the United States was founded to be an explicitly Christian nation, is another conservative hero Saccone has invoked during his campaign, with Barton even making an appearance at the launch of Saccone’s congressional campaign.
Saccone’s praise of Barton is not unusual among Republican politicians; everyone from Ted Cruz to President Trump himself has used Barton as an attempt to appeal to the Evangelical base of the Republican Party which has lapped up his Constitutional falsehoods. What appears to have doomed Saccone in this race is not his extreme religious, or anti-welfare views, both of which were not always in step with the blue-collar district he was seeking to represent.
Instead, the factor that doomed Saccone’s campaign appears to have been Trump himself. For his part, the President campaigned semi-vigorously for Saccone in the final week of the campaign, holding a rally in the Pittsburgh suburbs where he quickly endorsed Saccone before launching into his usual crass attacks on the mainstream media and Democratic rivals, to the delight of thousands of his supporters. Outside the rally, however, Pennsylvania's 18th was more divided. Many voters who had supported Trump in 2016 were preparing to vote for Conor Lamb, perhaps put off by Trump’s impulsive and unstable demeanor or maybe frustrated by his divisive policies and attempts to gut welfare and other social services. Those voters were in a strange coalition with Democrats in the district who saw in Lamb a Democrat capable of winning even in such a strongly Republican area. Although their reasons for voting Lamb were likely different, this cobbled-together voting block was able to put him in office.
A victory of this magnitude is likely to embolden Democrats; if they could win here, they will reason, they can win virtually anywhere. While such an idea may be wishful thinking, the Republican Congressional Committee should feel a grave sense of concern over Saccone’s defeat. If they could lose Alabama and this ruby red district, is there a way to stop the losses from piling up? Unless they vastly change their campaign strategy going into the midterms, the “blue wave” the Democrats are giddily anticipating could actually come to fruition.