Pennsylvania’s 18th District

Alan Zendell, March 14, 2018

Before I forget, happy Pi Day.

We’ve already been hearing a lot of nonsense from the so-called pundits about yesterday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. As the votes were being counted, various talking heads opined that it really didn’t matter who won – the real message was that the race never should have even been close in a district Trump won by twenty percentage points. While it’s true that the race shouldn’t have come down to absentee ballots, the notion that it doesn’t matter who won is absurd.

The closeness of the election shocked both the Republican establishment and the White House, but without a victory the message would have been hollow. Having Rick Saccone, aka Trump Lite, in the Congress instead of the very centrist Democrat Conor Lamb would have been all that really mattered a month from now. Remember the furor over Kennedy’s contested victory over Nixon and Bush’s chaotic win over Gore that had to be decided in the Supreme Court? Does any of that matter today?

Both Kennedy and Bush turned the country in entirely new directions from their predecessors’, despite the fact the half the country voted against both of them. Even in a district that won’t exist next November, Lamb’s voice and face in House of Representatives will be a constant reminder and rallying cry of what his victory meant.

The other, even worse nonsense that we’ll be hearing from the White House is that this is only one seat in one district. It’s an aberration. It’s insignificant in terms of the November mid-term election. Well, no. It absolutely is significant. It’s of monumental importance, and more than any of the special elections in 2017, it’s a harbinger of what we’re going to see eight months from now.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 2016, Donald Trump received 46.7 percent of the popular vote. I don’t know exactly what the vote count was in Pennsylvania’s 18th, but for the sake of argument, let’s represent Trump’s vaunted twenty percent win as 60-40. This week’s special election was a virtual dead heat, 50-50, in a district that was the quintessential example of those that resulted in Trump’s victory. It couldn’t have been more representative of that part of Trump’s base − coal country, rust belt, mostly white, wealthier than average − that he needs to retain if he expects to win re-election or have a Congress he can work with in 2019 and 2020. The fact that Saccone cast himself as a virtual Trump clone, makes the result of the election a clear repudiation of the president.

If Trump’s base in this district represented sixty percent of the 2016 vote, the fifty percent showing for Saccone suggests that the president has lost the confidence of one-sixth of his base. Let’s project that across the board. If we reduce Trump’s 46.7% in 2016 by the same one sixth, we get 38.9%. Whether or not you have any respect for polls, that number bears a startling similarity to Trump’s current approval rating which has trended downward from the high forties as low as the mid-thirties and now hovers around 40%.

If you don’t believe Lamb’s victory was a rejection of Trumpism, consider how much Trump invested in attempting to salvage this win for the Republican Party. The rafter-shaking buffoonery at the campaign rally he staged wasn’t enough to stem the Democratic tide, even when it was supplemented by personal visits from Vice President Pence and Donald Trump Jr, and the announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum, which were obviously timed to influence this election.

Lamb’s win also signals possible changes in the Democratic Party leadership. He was clear throughout the campaign that he would not support Nancy Pelosi. There’s no doubt that the Democrats have floundered under her direction, and she has become the Conservatives’ symbol of everything they hate about the progressive movement in this country.

Lamb is being held up as a new kind of Democrat, a model of the sort of candidate that can shift the balance of power away from the Republicans. Of course, if Conor Lamb’s campaign is replicated a few dozen times, and the Democratic Party does retake control of Congress, it will be a very different party from the one that managed to bungle a presidential election that everyone thought was impossible to lose.

Hmmm, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, either for the Democrats or the nation.

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