What We Can Learn From the Pennsylvania Special Election

As of this writing, the winner of the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district hasn’t been officially called yet, but Democrat Conor Lamb has declared victory.

The Democrat and Republican in a special House election in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Trump country were divided by a few hundred votes in a race that was too close to call early Wednesday — an ominous sign for Republicans in a district that Donald J. Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points.

With 100 percent of votes counted, Conor Lamb, a Democrat, was clinging to a 641-vote lead over Rick Saccone, a Republican. But one county in the four-county district had not yet counted its absentee ballots, so no winner had been declared as of Wednesday morning.

Regardless of who holds this seat from now until November, this is a huge loss for Republicans. To get a sense of that, one of the things that has been lost in all the coverage of the race and the candidates involved is the reality of how all of this came about. After being elected to this seat eight times, Republican Tim Murphy—a proponent of “family values”—was caught trying to get the woman he had an affair with to have an abortion. Prior to that, the Democrats hadn’t challenged this seat since 2012, when their candidate lost by 28 points. Cook Political Report rates this district as R+11 and, as you may have heard, Trump won it by 20 points.

Martin suggested that we take the long view on this district, which makes a lot of sense. There was a time when it leaned Democratic. But that ended long before Trump came on the scene.

Here is an even longer-term look at what has been happening to the Democratic margin in rural Greene County.

In other words, Democrats started losing ground in the late 1980s and have been heading downward ever since. Whatever began to turn this district red started during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, long before the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

That trend took a sharp turn last night. While Westmoreland County didn’t provide precinct-level data, here is what the shift from the 2016 election results looked like in the rest of the district:

In terms of impact, a former Republican congressman summed it up.

Overall, here is what the pattern looks like from special elections, along with some historical perspective:

Ed Kilgore wrote that this was a “no excuses” special election for the Republicans.

PA-18 is a strongly Republican, and a strongly pro-Trump district. Saccone wasn’t a perfect candidate, but he wasn’t a disaster like Roy Moore, either. He had enough outside money and enough get-out-the-vote help from the national party and from conservative groups to counteract anything Conor Lamb could throw at him. And he had massive support from the president, his family, and his administration, in an iconic Trump Country district that almost perfectly typified the Rust Belt areas that won him the presidency.

I’m sure that Donald Trump and others will attempt to come up with someone to blame for this horrible showing of their party. But this special election did nothing to dampen the prospects of a coming blue wave in November.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.