Why It Doesn't Matter Who the Winner Is in PA-18

ANALYSIS
Why It Doesn't Matter Who the Winner Is in PA-18
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
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As of this writing, Democrat Conor Lamb is clinging to a lead of roughly 600 votes in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.  There are probably not enough uncounted votes out there for Republican Rick Saccone to pull out the win.  It also really doesn’t matter much, one way or the other (unless you are a Democrat living in the 18th who feels strongly about having a Democrat represent you in Washington). Here’s why:

  1. The House is increasingly polarized.

There was a time that a narrowed House majority for a party would make for interesting politics in Washington, because enough members of each party could often be persuaded to vote for the other party’s agenda and truly complicate matters.  No more. The House is for all intents and purposes a parliamentary-style democracy, where members of a party support their party’s agenda.  There are exceptions (looking at you, Freedom Caucus), but generally speaking, Republicans vote for Republican policies.  In other words, reducing the GOP majority from 24 seats to 23 is likely to have a minimal impact on actual legislation in the House.

  1. The district is disappearing.

It’s not even clear that this outcome will have an effect on the battle for the House. Because of a Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruling that invalidated the state’s congressional map as a partisan gerrymander, this district has been substantially redrawn and made more Republican for the fall (though that change is subject to a higher court challenge). Conor Lamb will likely run in the redrawn 17th Congressional District, which will be a swing district. The effect of incumbency will help him somewhat, but 80 percent of the district will be new to him.

  1. Local factors matter.

Much is made of the fact that PA-18 went for Donald Trump in 2016 by 20 percentage points, which represents a massive swing against Republicans.  But this outsized GOP advantage is fairly new.  Southwestern Pennsylvania has been trending Republican now for several decades. As recently as 1998, Democrats held every congressional district in the region. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the currently drawn district by 17 points, and John McCain carried the precincts in the district by 11.  PA-18 was redrawn in 2010, but its 2008 partisanship was unchanged, so we might look back further and see that George W. Bush won it by eight points in 2004 and by five in 2000.  Democrats still maintain a registration advantage here, and a lot of these voters had cast ballots for Democratic candidates during their lives.

It’s also true that Republican Rick Saccone was a lackluster candidate and a poor fit for the 18th. He was a weak fundraiser, and his economic libertarianism was a tough sell there. The previous Republican, Tim Murphy, was more moderate on economic issues, and enjoyed some labor support during his tenure (cut short by a sex scandal).  Lamb, on the other hand, was a good fit, and he positioned himself well.  He was a military veteran who supported gun rights, opposed Nancy Pelosi, and earned the support of organized labor.

  1. Let’s not get carried away, though.

You can perhaps explain away about half of the 20-point swing from Trump’s 2016 showing as a result of the district’s Democratic DNA, candidate quality, and the vagaries of special elections.  But you can’t explain it all.  The unpopularity of the president can’t be dismissed.  Monmouth polling had his job approval at around 50 percent in the district.  Even if you adjust for the fact that the pollster overstated the Democrat’s lead in the poll, that still marks a substantial decline in support for Trump.  Elections are largely referenda on the party in power, and in this election, many voters who supported Republicans in 2016 gave Trump the thumb’s-down.

  1. It doesn’t change much for the midterms either way.

Overall, however, this misses the point.  Regardless of how the final count turns out, and whatever the results of a likely recount are, the analysis of this election should be the same: It is bad news for Republicans.  There are over 100 districts that are bluer than this one.  While not all of them will feature Republican retirements, Democrats who are perfectly tailored for the electorates, and problematic Republicans, a lot of them will.  The GOP’s House majority is in grave danger in the fall. That was the story before this election, and it remains the story today.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.



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