WASHINGTON – This is a bad week to be a Republican member of Congress.
They all had their eyes on Western Pennsylvania, where Democrat Conor Lamb won a special election in a gerrymandered district that looks like a Rorschach test, a district designed to elect Republicans for life. No doubt dozens of House Republicans are looking at that result and thinking: there but for the grace of God go I.
So does this spell doom for the Republican majority in the fall election, and trouble for local Republicans such as Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence and Rep. Tom Reed of Corning?
The following five takeaways show that the answer to that question is: maybe, but not necessarily.
Candidates matter: Democrats in Pennsylvania's 18th District were blessed with something they will not have in every district: an excellent candidate.
Conor Lamb was exactly the kind of Democrat who can win in a conservative district: a veteran from a well-known political family who inoculated himself from every attack Republicans threw at him. They couldn't call him a gun-grabber because his first ad showed him shooting an assault rifle. They tried to call him Nancy Pelosi's "little Lamb," but that didn't stick because he said he would not support Pelosi if she runs to continue as the Democratic leader in the House. Meantime, Republican Rick Saccone ran as sort of a mini-Trump, which made him look like old news compared with his young, charismatic opponent.
Will Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray or Genesee County businessman Nick Stankevich prove to be as strong a candidate against Collins? Will a compelling candidate emerge from the crowded field of Democrats hoping to challenge Reed in the Southern Tier? Time will tell.
It's just one district: Republicans are especially terrified because if Democrats can win in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, it seems Democrats can win just about anywhere.
According to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index, there are 118 Republican-held districts nationwide that are less friendly to the GOP than the district Lamb won. In Lamb's district, Cook's Partisan Voter Index is Republican +11 – exactly the same as it is in Chris Collins' district.
So in theory, then, a Democrat could just as easily beat Collins as Lamb beat Saccone, right? Not necessarily.
For one things, incumbents like Collins almost always have an inherent advantage in name recognition and party support that open-seat candidates like Saccone lack.
And for another, Cook's Partisan Voter Index may not be the most useful guide in Trump-loving lands like the wilds of Western New York and the Southern Tier.
While Trump won Lamb's district by 20 points, the boisterous billionaire beat Hillary Clinton by a whopping 24 points in Collins' district, the 27th, which includes the very conservative countryside between Buffalo and Rochester. If Saccone had those four extra points, we'd be calling him Congressman-elect Saccone just about now.
Remember, too, that Trump remains popular among Republicans – which means that a candidate like Collins, one of Trump's most outspoken supporters, would likely remain popular, too, in a heavily GOP district like New York's 27th.
By both the Cook's Partisan Voter Index and the 2016 presidential results, Reed's Southern Tier district looks more hospitable for Democrats. That district, the 23rd, is Republican +6 by Cook's measure. And Trump won it by only 15 points – far less than his margin in the district Lamb just won.
Money won't save you: Nothing will frighten Republicans more about the Pennsylvania race than this cold hard fact. The security blanket that incumbents depend on, made of thick piles of campaign cash, proved worthless to Saccone.
The GOP candidate proved to be a lackluster fundraiser, but national Republicans poured more than $10 million into Pennsylvania's 18th District, even though it's set to disappear this fall under a court-ordered redrawing of Pennsylvania's currently gerrymandered congressional map. Not since Jeb! has so much good campaign cash been burned so uselessly.
Lamb didn't have nearly as much money – only around $6.5 million – boosting his campaign. But it was enough to allow him to deliver his message to voters.
That's an indication that the Democrats who challenge Collins and Reed may be able to wage serious bids even if, as expected, they lose the dash for cash by a large margin.
Tax cuts won't save you: Republicans have been saying for weeks that the worst had passed for them because polls showed that voters were increasingly favoring the tax overhaul the GOP Congress passed late last year.
These are questions that candidates like Collins and Reed will no doubt ponder and try to answer in the coming weeks.
Medicare matters: The Pennsylvania race carried eerie echoes of the 2011 special election in Western New York in which Democrat Kathy Hochul upset Republican Jane Corwin. Both races featured a charismatic Democrat running against a plodding Republican. Both drew inordinate amounts of national attention. And both proved that the Medicare issue is like oxygen to Democrats.
Lamb, like Hochul, ran hard against the always-hovering Republican idea of reforming Medicare and/or Social Security through privatization. In one ad, Lamb derides Republicans for talking about Medicare and Social Security “as if it’s undeserved, or if it’s some form of welfare.”
It seems that ad worked. Public Policy Polling did an exit poll in the race that found health care, which of course includes Medicare, to be a top issue for 52 percent of voters. Lamb won those voters by a 62-38 percent margin.
So do you think Collins' eventual opponent, and Reed's, will be talking about how Republicans supposedly want to decimate Medicare and steal the Social Security checks out of the hands of seniors? Democratic consultants are probably dreaming up ads along those lines already.
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