Were we to take a drive south from Pittsburgh we would go through miles of white suburbs. If we were to drive west into Washington or east into Westmoreland Counties we would find ourselves in rural coal country. We would also be in Pennsylvania’s soon to disappear, 18th Congressional district. That district will disappear by November because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has found that the state’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally drawn to give political advantages to the Republican majority in Harrisburg, and the Court redrew them. So, this fall the 18th will be no more and its citizens will be divided up into newly drawn 14thand 17th districts. That makes it all the more surprising that both parties have chosen to spend so much money on a special election in the 18th.
The political parties are facing an election for all 435 members of the House this November. Winning majorities in the House is often about momentum and about voter enthusiasm. Given President Trump’s unpopularity, that momentum and that enthusiasm are now clearly with the Democrats. The special election in the 18th was a chance for Republicans to slow that momentum by holding on to a district that had been Republican for fifteen years. For Democrats it offered a rare chance to show that that they could win in a district where Donald Trump had prevailed by nineteen percentage points in 2016.
So, the national parties were using one special election in southwestern Pennsylvania to test their issues and strategies for that larger battle later. It was a kind of proxy battle for the November election to come. Huge amounts of money were spent (over 13 million dollars), and the citizens, inundated with 24 hours a day of television ads, and millions of unwanted phone calls, could reasonably view themselves as victims. In party wars like this the voters can suffer as collateral damage.
That special election was needed because the District’s fiercely anti-abortion Republican Congressman, Tim Murphy had been forced to resign because of an abortion scandal (His mistress thought she was pregnant and Murphy had urged her to have an abortion. She made it public). His resignation meant there would be a special election to fill the seat. Democratic Party officials chose Conor Lamb, a 33 year old prosecutor and former Marine. The Republicans choose a very conservative 62 year old state legislator named Rick Saccone (Sah kohn).
The heart of the 18th District, suburban Allegheny County, was really ideal for Lamb. Those kinds of districts have been leaving the Republicans and moving to Democrats at least since the Obama election in 2008. That movement has accelerated with the election of Donald Trump. Lamb did get three fifths of the Allegheny County vote. The other two more rural counties (Westmoreland and Washington) logically should have gone to Saccone. Both counties had been won by Donald Trump with huge margins. Saccone’s strategy had been to tie himself closely to Donald Trump (He pronounced himself Trump’s “wingman”.). And, although Donald Trump ended up talking mostly about himself, he did make a trip to the District to personally appear with Rick Saccone. Despite that effort by the President, Lamb managed to capture 43% of the vote in Westmoreland and 47% of the vote in Washington Counties, a huge increase over past elections.
So, what can the parties take away from this experiment in high spending? On the face of it, the Democrats reaffirmed that they will do well in prosperous suburbs. Democratic candidates could also learn that their campaigns need to be designed so as to not anger the voters who they are trying to get to “hire” them. Conor Lamb did not run on gun control (being a former Marine neutralized the gun issue), was careful to say that he personally opposed abortion, and announced that he would vote against Nancy Pelosi as his party’s congressional leader.
The Republicans, who have to rely on the white vote, should have been able to do well here. The 18th is ninety six percent white. Of the country’s 435 congressional districts, there are only six districts more “white” than the Pennsylvania 18th. The Republicans should also have learned that if the Democrats do not field someone they can paint as “liberal”, then they may face a real challenge. Republican candidates may find that dealing with the real economic concerns of local voters may prove really difficult for them. A tax reform widely understood to benefit the very rich may not be enough.
In the end, more than national campaigners like to think, the candidates themselves really determine who wins. Candidates who are young and vigorous are going to have an advantage over people who radiate age. The photogenic 33 year old Lamb had an obvious advantage of the 62 year old Saccone, who gave new meaning to the word “rumpled”. Being from a locally well-known local family certainly helps (Lamb’s family had been active in Pennsylvania politics for several generations.). Democratic candidates will have problems if their reputation is too “liberal” (If your candidacy seems to be about abortion, gay marriage, and LGBT rights, you lose.). Real concern about the welfare of people in the district will win votes.
Republicans should have learned that the tax cuts that they hoped to rely on are not going to work (Exit polls showed that voters’ top concern was health care.). They also are clearly going to have a problem this Fall dealing with President Trump outside those areas where he is really popular. Falling back on the old anger symbolism may not work well when Donald Trump heads the Party. Good Methodist, Hillary Clinton certainly will be hard to criticize by the candidates of a party whose leader’s past is so Stormy. And, Hillary Clinton is out of office. Nancy Pelosi is nearing the end of her career. Using them to arouse voter anger as Republicans have tried to do may end up just looking silly.
Although the Democrat won, the Republicans probably have the most to gain from heeding the lessons in democracy provided by this election in Pennsylvania. They certainly should be aware that they have more obstacles to victory than they had hoped before March came in like a Lamb.