WASHINGTON — Before Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania, most signs pointed to a Democratic wave in the upcoming midterm elections. But after Democrat Conor Lamb scored a razor-thin congressional victory in the heart of Trump Country, there’s a creeping consensus that the wave could become a tsunami.
The political spin doctors were out in full force Wednesday, as Republicans licked their wounds from an embarrassing loss and Democrats bellowed with confidence after winning a Pennsylvania district that Donald Trump took by 20 points in 2016.
Each side tried to parse what the results could mean for the midterm elections in November, when Democrats will attempt to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Republicans amid a growing backlash against the president.
In an ominous sign for the GOP, there are 114 districts currently held by Republicans where Trump’s margin of victory was smaller than in the Pennsylvania district won by Lamb Tuesday.
“The ground that Republicans are standing on is incredibly shaky, and we saw that last night,” said Douglas Heye, former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “The signs are pointing to a very bad November.”
Republican leaders, at least publicly, attempted to downplay the results, saying Lamb benefited from not having a primary opponent, which allowed him to stake out more conservative positions that were attractive to voters in that district. They also said the Republican in the race, state Representative Rick Saccone, was a uniquely bad candidate.
Lamb held a 627-vote lead on Wednesday, leading several news organizations to declare him the winner. Lamb claimed victory, but Saccone has not conceded defeat. The margin was small enough for Saccone to call for a recount.
Pollsters and other nonpartisan political strategists see the results in Pennsylvania as only the latest in a string of warning signs for Republicans that began shortly after the election of Trump.
“We got our ass kicked,” Senator John N. Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said on Capitol Hill Wednesday, one of the rare unequivocal statements made by a GOP lawmaker.
It was the latest in a series of Democratic wins during off-year elections. They swept to victory in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and Senator Doug Jones surprised Republican candidate Roy Moore in the Alabama special election in December.
Democrats have also won a spate of state legislature races around the country, including in districts that strongly backed Trump in 2016.
More importantly, pollsters say, are the demographic trends that have been constant throughout the races. From Virginia to Alabama and most of the special elections in between, the suburban voters who broke for Trump in the last days of the 2016 election seemed to have flipped to Democratic candidates. Additionally, Trump has inspired new energy among liberals, who now make up a greater share of the electorate.
“I’d put the probability that Democrats pick up the 24 seats they need for control of the House at almost 100 percent,” said Rachel Bitecofer, a pollster and the assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy in Virginia. “I think Republicans are going to lose control of the House, and then, beyond that, I’m thinking somewhere around 40 and 60 seats if the election is held today and Donald Trump is still the president. Because everything is conditioned on that.”
Other political observers added caveats but offered similar predictions. Much can change between March and November, said one longtime Republican operative, who acknowledged the results are certainly bad signs for conserv-ative candidates.
In Western Pennsylvania, “These were strong Trump base voters, and we couldn’t get enough of them to get our guy over the line,” said Stuart Stevens, an anti-Trump Republican operative and former top strategist for Republican Mitt Romney. “So there’s nothing positive.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press conference Wednesday morning that many Republicans running in November would have the benefit of incumbency and he was unconvinced Democrats could replicate Lamb’s candidacy across the country.
“This is something you’re not going to see repeated because [Democrats] didn’t have a primary and were able to pick a candidate that was able to run as a conservative — who ran against the minority leader [Nancy Pelosi] and ran on a conservative agenda,” Ryan said.
But even other conservatives disagreed with that analysis. While Lamb had some conservative positions, he also campaigned against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and vocally opposed the Republicans’ recently passed tax-cut legislation.
Lamb did say he would not vote for Pelosi to keep her leadership post, but he also embraced several younger Democrats, including Massachusetts Representatives Joe Kennedy III and Seth Moulton.
“This campaign has . . . shown what Democrats can do when we’re willing to run everywhere,’’ said Moulton in a statement. He aggressively campaigned and fund-raised for Lamb, “The political establishment, on both sides, told Conor he couldn’t win. But by continuing to invest in the right candidates, challenging the status quo, and talking about a forward-looking message for the country, we can take back the House and hold President Trump accountable to the American people.”
The race in Pennsylvania was also fought in a district that seemed primed to embrace Republican arguments on the tax reform bill passed last year as well as Trump’s recent decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum as a way to revitalize communities like suburban Pittsburgh, from where many of Tuesday’s voters came. The fact that Republicans have fared so poorly could be an indication of the limits of those political arguments.
Heye, the Republican consultant and former RNC spokesman, said he thought Ryan’s reading of the election was overly rosy. Heye expected Republicans to wake up Wednesday feeling more nervous about their midterm positions, saying they need to “deal with the reality on the ground” that Trump is not popular.
Currently, Trump’s overall approval rating is 40 percent, almost 5 points lower than Barack Obama’s in 2010, when the Tea Party backlash in the midterms upended his presidency.
As for the Democrats, the group has rarely been more confident. After their good showing in Pennsylvania, the Democrats’ campaign arm for House races — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — added 13 new districts to its “watch list.”
One of the new additions: Ryan’s district in Wisconsin.
“Hi, @PRyan, your own district is almost twice as competitive as #PA18. You may be in the state of denial, but our sights are set on the state of Wisconsin,” the group tweeted on Wednesday morning.
Another sign of the growing confidence: Representative Ben Ray Luján, the DCCC chair, spent Wednesday calling potential candidate recruits.
But while Democrats and Republicans crowed back and forth, there was one notably silent voice Wednesday morning — President Trump. His normally active Twitter account often sets the news of the day or reacts to morning political shows, but the @realDonaldTrump account was quiet on the biggest political story of the day.Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley