House Republicans are fretting over the results of Pennsylvania’s special election, worried that the tight race in the heart of Trump country might be a harbinger of a Democratic wave in the midterm elections later this year.
There’s a “50-50” chance that Democrats can flip the House, senior Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeUS budget deficit narrows sharply GOP lawmaker opens door to funding bill to combat omicron Stand-alone reconciliation must end MORE (R-Okla.) told CNN on Wednesday. Rep. Mark SanfordMark SanfordBritain checking gun license applicants' social media, medical records Mark Sanford calls Graham 'a canary in the coalmine' on GOP's relationship with Trump Top cyber Pentagon official overseeing defense contractor project placed on leave MORE (R-S.C.) called a blue wave this fall “certainly a possibility.”
“It would be a seismic shift politically” if that happened, Sanford told The Hill. “I think a lot of rank-and-file members I’ve talked to are quite concerned about that possibility or that prospect.”
GOP leaders warned Republican members to pick up the pace when it comes to fundraising and to better define themselves as candidates to the voters.
“If you're getting outraised, this is a wake up call. Prepare to bear down,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm, told rank-and-file Republicans Wednesday during a private meeting, according to a source in the room.
Retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a leader of the moderate Tuesday Group, told CNN that Republicans up for reelection this year are aware they’re running against a “hurricane-force wind,” while conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) simply characterized Tuesday’s election result as “not good.”
“Winning is better than losing,” he quipped.
“Any district that touches the suburbs, regardless of Trump victory margins, is in play,” said a senior GOP aide.
Longtime Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), whose Long Island seat Democrats are targeting, agreed that Tuesday’s special election should set off alarm bells in the party. He urged GOP colleagues to more closely align with the labor unions that helped boost Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania's 18th District, even as he and other Republicans panned Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff plan.
“We have to better appeal to blue-collar voters. Whatever coalition Donald Trump had, we can’t afford to lose that,” King told The Hill. “We talk too much about corporations. We talk too much about abstractions. We should be down there and a lot closer to organized labor.”
But King, a 13-term lawmaker, said he’s not worried about his own race: “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m close to grass roots, I’ll have over $3 million [in the bank] and I’m very close to cops and firemen.”
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Lamb, who has declared victory, leads Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone by a little more than 600 votes in a district Trump won just 16 months ago by 20 percentage points. Several thousand absentee votes from across the district remain to be counted, though they are not likely to change the outcome.
Historically, the president’s party loses about 32 seats on average during the midterms; Democrats can win back the majority by flipping a net 24 seats.
“Every time you have a midterm with a new president, you have headwinds,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), the first Republican in Congress to endorse Trump for president. “The anti-Trump Trump haters are quite energized for getting out the vote and raising money.”
Publicly, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other GOP leaders are downplaying the results. They say that Lamb ran as a pro-guns, anti-abortion rights, anti-Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) conservative — something that won’t be replicated by Democrats running in other races around the country.
Democrats “didn’t have a primary, so they were able to pick a candidate who ran on a conservative agenda,” Ryan explained to reporters in the Capitol. “You will have primaries in all these other races and that will bring them to the left, so it’s just not something that I think we will see a repeat of.”
GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, a Trump ally who’s running against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, also argued that the Lamb-Saccone race would have no bearing on his contest or others across the country.
“I don’t see that race as any kind of reflection on what a statewide race in Pennsylvania would look like,” Barletta told The Hill. “There are not too many Democrats who are pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, against leadership — that’s not who Casey is.”
Republicans have largely blamed the election results on Saccone’s poor fundraising. Lamb outspent Saccone five-to-one in the district leading up to Tuesday's special election, though GOP outside groups also poured $12 million into the race.
Concerned that other GOP candidates could get caught flat-footed, leaders are now ratcheting up pressure on Republicans in typically safe districts to boost their fundraising efforts and prepare for tighter-than-expected races.
“If you’re a Republican in a safe seat, you better be ready if a seat like this can go badly,” Dent told reporters Wednesday. “The members in the marginal swing districts, they are well-prepared for the fight. They know what they’re in for. But I worry about members who have never been in a real fight before.”
Republican leaders also encouraged members to better define themselves and their Democratic opponents from the start, according to a source in Wednesday’s GOP meeting.
“Not many people knew Saccone was an Air Force vet, had written nine books written and had a Ph.D. You can’t tell his story like he can,” the GOP source said. “But you need money to do that, and a candidate’s money goes further” than campaign funds from outside groups.
The tight race in a Trump stronghold is also raising questions about what role the president should play in the midterms.
Trump, who plans to be an active presence on the campaign trail, appeared at a weekend rally with Saccone, while a number of top Trump surrogates campaigned with the candidate.
But with Trump’s approval ratings hovering in the low 40s, it’s unclear whether he can replicate the same winning coalition as he did in 2016.
Still, GOP members said there’s no doubt that Trump and Vice President Pence could help Republicans significantly boost their campaign coffers.
“There’s no question that they are both a big draw ... as we’re trying to raise money to get our message out,” Collins said.
House Republicans have already seen a rash of retirements this campaign cycle. The Pennsylvania results could compel other veteran lawmakers to head for the exits as well.
At least 42 Republicans have either resigned, plan to retire or plan to run for higher office. On Wednesday, the Democratic campaign arm added 13 new names to their 2018 retirement “watch list,” including Ryan, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).
It will now be up to Ryan, Stivers and other leaders to convince wary colleagues to stick it out and run in a challenging environment rather than bail on the party.
If you’re chairman of the National Congressional Campaign Committee, “the last thing you want is a retirement,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a former chairman of the committee, told The Hill earlier this year.
This story was updated at 4:16 p.m.