WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Republicans’ official explanation of their apparent loss in Pennsylvania’s special election was this: Democrat Conor Lamb only succeeded because he ran “as a Republican,” and his win in a red district was so unique that it wouldn’t be replicated in other elections in November.
And the president has clearly internalized that message, saying of Lamb at a private fundraising event last night, “[H]e said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis.’”
First of all, that’s… not accurate. Lamb explicitly ran against the tax cuts, and he also criticized the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare and said he backs Roe v. Wade despite his personal opposition to abortion.
But the GOP talking points also ignore some other important political realities. Here are three reasons Lamb’s win shouldn’t be viewed as a one-off.
1. Lamb isn’t a “unicorn”
Sure, Lamb was a particularly good candidate, but he’s hardly alone in either his personal or his political profile. Democrats in the know point us towards plenty of candidates with backgrounds in the military or as prosecutors — and/or as moderates running in Republican-leaning districts. That includes places as varied as the Detroit exurbs, southwestern Illinois, Salt Lake City suburbs, upstate New York, Little Rock and Staten Island.
The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter put it this way: “What should worry R’s about PA-18 isn’t that Conor Lamb was a unicorn (moderate, military, focused on CD & not Trump), but that there are lots of other D candidates w/ this profile running.”
2. Geography matters
Unlike some of the much-discussed competitive suburban districts in places outside of D.C. or Houston, for example, the Lamb district included some exurban/rural territory as well. And those are the kinds of districts – think Omaha, Neb., or Virginia’s eastern shore or California’s central valley — where a moderate Democrat could thrive, particularly as Republicans are forced to choose between alienating rural Trump fans by moderating too much or alienating suburban voters by hugging the president too closely.
3. Primaries will matter, but the intraparty divides aren’t just a Democratic problem
Republicans have pointed out that Lamb — who, like Rick Saccone, was chosen at a party convention — wasn’t subjected to a primary, which might have forced him to the left. And they’re right: Democrats can’t count on only getting candidates who are perfectly politically calibrated to their districts after contested primaries. (Exhibit A: That nasty TX-7 primary earlier this month.)
But one thing we learned from Lamb was that the Democratic base was willing to forgive his rejection of Nancy Pelosi — a move that other Democrats are now even more likely to replicate. But what happens to a Republican running in a less Trump-friendly district than PA-18 when they distance themselves from the president?