What PA Special Elections May Mean for Midterms By Heather E. Yates
The special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th House district is the closest race yet with the Democratic challenger Conor Lamb nearly tied with Richard Saccone. Lamb is ahead in vote count by just over 600 ballots with a potential recount forthcoming. The special election was a well-timed field test for both parties ahead of November’s midterm.
During a midterm year, a special election is different from a primary. Where a primary settles an intraparty conflict, a special election in this case offers an early field-test of two things: the Democrats’ electoral strategy and Trump’s presidential coattails.
The Republicans flipped the 18th district in 2002 and it remained a solid red district until the incumbent, Tim Murphy, resigned last October. Trump won the district in 2016 by a margin of 20 points.
The district does have a Democratic history and Conor Lamb whittled down the Republican lead, which likely influenced forecasters to consider the district a tossup ahead of Tuesday’s voting.
The history of midterm elections does not offer much optimism for the Republican Party. President Trump and safe Republicans will take a tactically defensive posture for the November elections. The large voter turnout and close results in Pennsylvania suggest an energized Democratic Party, while the Doug Jones upset in Alabama contributed a great deal to the evolution of the Democratic strategy.
The first sign of evolution was on messaging. Democrats retired the referendum message and emphasized localized policy solutions as opposed to nationalizing House districts. This seems to be paying off.
The second point of evolution was mobilizing the base. Electoral strategy is about knowing the voters and one of the principal struggles parties routinely encounter is understanding the nature of their electoral base, the distinct demographics in each district, and the specific issues that need solutions in varied regions. Conor Lamb represented a more traditional conservative FDR Democrat and his candidacy played well to the Catholic working-class of the 18th district.
Richard Saccone by all accounts was a conventional Republican, but experienced difficulty getting financial traction. Lamb’s campaign both out-raised and outspent Saccone. Even so, both campaigns benefited from a hefty amount of independent spending by the campaign arms of the RNC, DNC and SuperPACs.
The special election did not draw the celebrity power that the Georgia 6th or Alabama elections attracted, but there were plenty of rank and file party leadership involved. Joe Biden stumped for Conor Lamb, and of course, Donald Trump rallied for Rick Saccone. Star power and hefty spending is no substitute for motivated voters.
Trump’s Presidential Coattails
Midterm elections for a sitting president can be particularly brutal, historical patterns show as much. Trump exudes optimism for a repeat of 2002 when Republicans picked up seats in the midterm, but others in his party are not so optimistic. George W. Bush’s average approval rating in his first term was 62 percent. Short term forces such as the 9/11 attacks likely galvanized Republican support in the 2002 midterms.
Trump’s approval rating his first year was 38 percent and about 10 points lower than previous presidents’ first year job approval. Trump may not have particularly long coattails in this midterm cycle, but there are specific districts where the President’s popularity is steadfast.
With the number of Republican retirements in Congress, new GOP candidates could potentially benefit from a coattails effect. However, in this era of extreme political polarization and negative partisanship rising, presidential coattails may present more liability than benefit for the GOP.
Trump’s bombastic personal style and rallies energize not only his supporters, but his opponents too. Yet, being in the position of the Democratic Party in the era of Donald Trump requires more than organizing in opposition of the incumbent president to achieve an electoral majority in the midterms.
Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices (Palgrave).