A GOP loss in Trump-country special election would be devastating

A GOP loss in Trump-country special election would be devastating
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You may not have heard of Rick Saccone, but for the next week, he just might be the most important man in American politics.

Saccone, a Republican, faces Democrat Conor Lamb in a March 13 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. The two are vying to replace Tim MurphyTim MurphySaccone loses GOP primary comeback bid in Pa. Nearly half of voters hope for Dems to win majority in 2018: poll GOP Rep. Dent will leave Congress in May MORE, a Republican who had to resign after scandals about mistreatment of staff and allegedly asking his mistress to get an abortion, even though he was one of the most strongly pro-life members of Congress.

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Under normal circumstances, this should not be a difficult race for Saccone. Yes, Democrats hold a 70,000-person edge in voter registration, but President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump appears to confirm deal on Chinese firm ZTE Judge rejects Manafort's attempt to throw out some charges Dem: Trump’s policy of separating children, parents at border ‘would shock Jesus’ MORE carried the district by 20 points, Murphy won unopposed his last two terms and Saccone is used to winning in districts where his party is in the minority.

Moreover, it is estimated that Saccone has outspent his opponent 17-to-1, he will have received campaign visits by President Trump, Vice President Pence and first daughter Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Trump now says Korea summit could still happen June 12 Ivanka to hit the campaign trail with McCarthy in California Ivanka Trump calls on women's tennis to change maternity leave rules for Serena Williams MORE by election day and is running in a district that has voted Republican by increasing margins in the last five presidential elections.

But this is no ordinary year.

Lamb, who, at 33, already has served as an officer in the Marines and a federal prosecutor, is no ordinary opponent. His family has been in politics for generations, he has announced he would not support Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiElection fears recede for House Republicans Senate harassment bill runs into opposition from House 2018 midterms: The blue wave or a red dawn? MORE (D-Calif.) as speaker, and he has managed to pull even or even surpass Saccone in the polls.

And there could not be much more riding on one race in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania in a district that may not even exist once Pennsylvania settles on a redistricting plan.

If Saccone wins — and the election is too close to call at this point — Republicans will allay jitters that have increased with the losses of statehouse elections in areas Trump carried in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

The fundraising advantage Republicans already enjoy — they have $40 million in the bank; the Democrats are essentially broke at the national level — would swell with the new confidence and probably help ensure the GOP retains control of both houses of Congress in November.

It also would show that voters in areas President Trump carried in 2016 have not abandoned the president and that the power of the presidency — the steel and aluminum tariffs proposed in recent days are believed to be part of an effort to help Saccone’s campaign in a district with 86,000 union households — can still be used to deliver seats in Congress for his party.

If Saccone loses, it’s another story. The Democratic Party itself may still be in disarray and not capable of raising much money, and the National Republican Congressional Committee may still be outraising its Democratic counterpart, but Democratic candidates in 40 races are reported to have outraised their Republican opponents, and a victory by Lamb would only bolster that. And the fact Republicans lavished $9 million on this campaign would have them questioning their spending priorities.

More importantly, Democrats would have found a winning formula. As Salena Zito put it:

“If Lamb wins, then every Democrat running in a swing district across the country will try to adapt the Lamb strategy: Avoid the press; take no strong stands on any issue; and just focus on saying over and over again that, as a candidate, you support new leadership on both sides of the aisle. If Lamb loses, it’s back to the #Resistance.”

Going back to the #Resistance would be good news for Republicans. Its congressional candidates, such as Jon Ossoff in Georgia, have not been successful at converting independent and middle-of-the-road voters to the Democratic side.

But a Lamb victory, especially in a climate where some Republicans have abandoned their opposition to tariffs and limited government, could provide momentum and a blueprint for Democrats to run as centrists and blunt literally all of the current GOP attacks.

Democrats won’t like winning this way. But they’ll take it. And if it works next Tuesday in southwest Pennsylvania, it will be time for Republicans to push the panic button.

Ford O'Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, an adjunct professor at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, worked on John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTo woo black voters in Georgia, Dems need to change their course of action Senate panel again looks to force Trump’s hand on cyber warfare strategy Senate panel advances 6B defense policy bill MORE's 2008 presidential campaign, and authored the book "Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery." Follow him on Twitter @FordOConnell.