A lot of ink has been spilled and much TV airtime has been cluttered with opinions and analysis of the PA-18 special election. Some good. Some bad. Some ridiculous and overblown.
I’m not interested in rehashing or debunking all of it. Nor do I think it’s healthy to read too much into one special election.
But, there are some important takeaways from this election that will tell us something about the road ahead for both parties in 2018.
Lamb didn’t co-opt the GOP agenda, he co-opted Trump's anti-Washington message. And, lots of other Democrats are too:
Republicans argue that Lamb’s success came thanks to his conservative profile, especially on issues like guns, abortion and trade. Even President Trump, at a private fundraiser, said of Lamb: “The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump.'”
A lot of this spin is silly. Yes, he distanced himself from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and didn’t directly attack President Trump. However, he also ran ads that highlighted his support for “stronger background checks” on guns and chided his GOP opponent Rick Saccone, who had the NRA endorsement, for voting to “eliminate’ those background checks. He also criticized the GOP tax plan and attempts to repeal Obamacare. And while he said he was personally pro-life, he is opposed to a 20-week abortion ban.
But, Trump’s not totally wrong when he says that Lamb co-opted his message. Lamb, like Trump, ran as an outsider and a problem solver who would take on the entrenched special interests and fight for the hard-working, but under appreciated middle class. Take this ad, where Lamb tells voters that while he’s honored to be stopped at airports and thanked for his military service, he wants to see teachers and nurses thanked for their important service to the country too. Lamb doesn’t call these folks, “forgotten men and women,” like Trump does, but it’s essentially the same message.
Like Trump, Lamb also presented himself as someone who couldn’t be bought off by special interests or outside groups. He swore off ‘corporate’ money and highlighted the fact that his opponent was benefitting from millions of dollars in “dark money’. In one ad, Lamb tells a group of voters that the special interests that are flooding district TV stations with anti-Lamb ads are “trying to drown out the truth. My money,” says Lamb, “is on the grassroots.” End Citizens United (ECU), a pro-Democratic PAC dedicated to overturning the Supreme Court “Citizen’s United” decision, was a significant financial investor in Lamb. They raised him $300,000 in "small donor donations” and spent another $250,000 on TV/ digital ads that contrasted Lamb’s refusal to take corporate PAC money with Saccone’s record of taking “lavish perks,” while serving in the state legislature.
While Lamb was a uniquely attractive messenger (military background, fresh face), his message is not unique. I’ve met a bunch of Democratic candidates who are running in GOP-held districts. None are highlighting their opposition to Trump. Almost all, however,are highlighting their opposition to an agenda they say is only benefitting the elites and not the regular person. They are running against Washington dysfunction and obstruction. One candidate, I met this week told us: “I’m not focused on what Trump is or isn't doing, but on finding solutions to our problems.” Another told me, “Congress is out of touch and not paying attention to kitchen table issues.”
Lamb's anti-special interest/anti-corporate campaign platform is also going to be replicated by plenty of Democrats this fall.
Tiffany Muller, ECU President and Executive Director, told me that more than 30 percent of Red to Blue candidates (Democrats running in GOP districts) have made a similar no corporate or no PAC money pledge. That’s a significant boost from 2016 when just 7 percent of Red to Blue candidates made the same commitment.
When you are out of power, as Democrats are today, it’s easier and more believable to run as the change candidate. The same messages that Trump used in 2016 - Washington is broken, Congress and Democrats are aligned with the special interests over the interests of the hard-working middle class - will be used by Democrats against congressional Republicans. And, given the frustration that voters continue to have about Washington dysfunction, that is still a very powerful and effective message.
Trump defines the vote ceiling for Republicans in special elections. Will he also define the ceiling for Republicans in November?
My colleague David Wasserman has identified an important trend in the seven federal special elections thus far this cycle. On average, he found, the Democratic candidate has outperformed their typical share of the vote by nine points.
Another pattern I’ve found in these special elections is that the Republican candidate’s vote share equals Trump’s overall job approval rating in the district or state.
For example, the last three polls taken in PA-18 showed Trump’s job approval in that district at 47 to 49 percent. Republican Rick Saccone took 49 percent of the vote.
In the Alabama Senate race, exit polls showed Trump with a 48 percent job approval rating. Republican Roy Moore took 48 percent.
This tells us that the fate of the GOP candidates is closely tied to voters perceptions of Trump. In other words, in these special elections, with the exception of GA-06, the GOP candidate didn’t fare any better than the perception of Trump in their state or district. In places where Trump’s job approval is at 50 percent or higher, the GOP candidate has been able to get 50 percent of the vote (or a little more). In places where Trump’s job approval is under 50 percent, the GOP candidate didn’t break 49 percent of the vote.
The good news for Republicans is that there are only two upcoming special elections left. Even if they lose both - which is unlikely to happen - Democrats would still be 21 seats short of the majority. Moreover, it’s much easier for Democrats to win in special elections where there is no incumbent, than it is to defeat the kind of well-funded and well-prepared GOP incumbents they will be up against this fall. However, there are 17 open seats that Republicans are defending this fall that are less-Republican (by PVI) than PA-18. If Trump’s approval rating was just 49 percent in a district he carried by 58 percent, just imagine what his approval ratings will look like in many of these open seat districts that he lost or barely won. This is why the number one priority for the Republican leadership today should be to do whatever they can to cajole any colleague thinking of retiring to stay put.