Choose your spin of the Pennsylvania election

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Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent victory Tuesday in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, which President Trump carried by 20 points in 2016, is indisputable, empirical proof of a gathering wave that will carry House Democrats to the majority in the November midterm elections.

Or, the result is just one special election in which a Democrat candidate defeated an inferior Republican candidate, state representative Rick Saccone, so it’s completely meaningless. Or, Tuesday night was a sign of a crystallizing battlefield for Democrats that will lead to a majority in November. Or, the district won’t even exist in a few months, because of a state Supreme Court-ordered redistricting, so why all the fuss?

{mosads}Many of the gray hairs on my head sprang from special elections when I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In Buffalo, Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special in a district that hadn’t elected a Democrat in decades (100 gray hairs). In Tampa, Democrat Alex Sink lost to Republican David Jolly (500 gray hairs). Then there was South Carolina, when Republican Mark Sanford defeated Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch (one-quarter of a scalp).

Each of these — and others — was like one of those On Demand TV series that’s hyped, overdramatized, expensive and quickly forgotten. Our base demanded that we play in every special election, but our budget demanded that we conserve resources. I called these “Rumpelstiltskin Races” in which there were lots of spinning and weaving, and at the end, an open window I could jump from, if necessary.

But PA-18 is different, specifically because it’s not a singular special election: It’s a punctuation point in a consistent trend of other local races that show Democratic energy at peak levels in a midterm environment. When you can play in Alabama, Virginia and western Pennsylvania, as well as earning victories in more than 30 state legislative races in environments as previously inhospitable to Democratic candidates as Oklahoma and Missouri, you can play almost anywhere.

It also refuted the predictable Republican strategy of weaponizing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. They used her in PA-18 with dull effect. Other Republican message failures included running on the success of the tax bill, running on Trump and running on Democrats hating God, which Saccone actually said.

Special elections are psychological operations. They charge the energy of the winning party and deflate the losing party. In the current political environment, the impact will be mostly felt by the Republican retirement fence-sitters. They’re the ones who foresee turbulent campaigns and a House majority slipping away. Approaching the point of no return — the deadline for filing their candidacies — the news from Pennsylvania is more likely to sway them to the sweet comforts of retirement. (I can speak with authority on that issue, having not run for reelection in 2016.)

Most of all, the result of the Lamb-Saccone race in Pennsylvania reflects the mysterious intangibles necessary to win a majority. Until now, I’ve seen a comfortable path for Democrats to pick up 20 of the 24 seats they need to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Then the path gets steeper and narrower around the Republican redistricting firewall.

But that’s only on paper. In certain political climates, like the one we’re in right now, rip up the paper, discard the sterile metrics and matrices, and ignore the turnout models and the polling. Sometimes, there’s just something in the air. There was in Pennsylvania on Tuesday night. And there’s more to come.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April.

Tags Congress Conor Lamb Democrats Donald Trump Election Mark Sanford Nancy Pelosi Pennsylvania Republicans Rick Saccone Steve Israel

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