Fear is contagious. And Republicans should be terrified about Tuesday night’s congressional race in southwestern Pennsylvania.
If they couldn’t win a House seat on solid Trump turf, in a gerrymandered GOP district, with multiple visits from Trump, Trump Junior, Pence, and with outside conservative groups outspending Democrats by 5-1, it’s clear they’re facing a potential disaster in November. For that, they can thank Trump — and their own subservience to Trump.
According to the best stat-crunchers, roughly 115 House districts are rated more competitive than the ruby-red, heavily white enclave outside of Pittsburgh. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to capture the House and restore a semblance of checks and balances to this imperiled democracy. Based on what happened Tuesday night, any House Republican incumbent in a competitive district could reasonably decide that retirement is far better than drowning in a blue wave.
Granted, Democrat Conor Lamb didn’t win in a landslide, but his apparently minuscule margin of victory — in a district where Democrats didn’t even bother to field a House candidate in 2014 or 2016, in a district where Trump won the presidential vote by 19 points — is the equivalent of a Lambslide.
Republicans threw everything at the race — tax cuts, tariffs, tying Lamb to evil Nancy Pelosi, stoking fear of immigrants, Trump ranting on the stump — but none of it dragged candidate Rick Saccone beyond the edge of the finish line.
Saccone touted himself as Trump’s “wingman,” but it didn’t work. Trump made the race a referendum about himself, by showing up twice, but it didn’t work. Trump Junior made the race about his father — “everything he stands for” was on the ballot — but it didn’t work. Ivanka tried in vain. Alternative factress Kellyanne Conway tried in vain.
Naturally, Republicans in thrall to the Trump cult are trying to favorably spin the results (Trump’s presence made the race close!), but everyone else in the party, every conservative who’s remotely tethered to reality, knows how to interpret an electoral slap in the face.
So I yield the floor to Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt: “It’s more than a ripple. It might be wave.”
And I yield the floor to conservative commentator Erick Erickson: “The reality is that a Democratic wave is building in the House. Seats that are suburban and bordering suburban are suddenly in play … Democrats are hungry for wins and the GOP is not. That’s a problem. Also, yes, the president’s popularity matters, and while you may like President Trump, the most energized voters in America hate him.”
And Republican pollster Frank Luntz: “[This election] is an extremely bad omen for the GOP.”
And Steve Stivers, who heads the House GOP’s campaign arm, briefing his fellow Republican incumbents: “This is a wake-up call … Prepare to bear down.”
And ex-Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye: “This is not a good result for the GOP. Look for more retirements to come.”
And conservative pundit John Podhoretz: “What matters is that the Democratic surge/GOP depression is very, very real … Goodbye, suburbia.”
And former Republican Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire: “The upset in Trumpland sends a message to Trump toadies in Congress.”
This is what happens when Republicans made the decision to aid and abet a serial-lying demagogue who’s unfit for office. Not even Putin’s bots and hackers may be enough to save those incumbents in November.
The psychological impact of Tuesday night’s election could be huge. Republicans with vulnerable seats may have to decide whether to break with Trump (and risk alienating Trump cultists), or stick with Trump (and risk alienating swing voters who detest their fealty). Republican donors could decide that it’s nuts to spend good money in a bad year. Democratic donors and voters, having never imagined that a pro-Trump Pennsylvania district could go blue, could be further energized. Heck, the demographics show that Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin district is more competitive than the one we tracked last night.
As the Pennsylvania race demonstrated anew, every vote counts. And those who are still oblivious need only consider this single factoid: If Democrats take the House in November, Trump-Russia toady Devin Nunes would no longer chair the House Intelligence Committee. The new chairman would be Adam Schiff, who thinks it’s wrong to further abet Russia’s penetration of this democracy.
I rest my case.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.