Reading The Tea Leaves Of PA-18

Democrats are ecstatic after PA-18’s results where at worse the party is set to have made Republicans sweat a dark red seat and at best narrowly stolen a strongly Trump seat.  Combined with Democratic performances in other special elections it fits a pattern of a GOP reeling under Trump’s first term.  But, in truth, the results just don’t matter that much.

Consider how polarized the House is.  There are few Democrats, even those sitting in Trump districts, who will vote for much GOP legislation.  This is true for Conor Lamb even if he wins this Trump seat.  For all intents and purposes on the big, controversial pieces of legislation the House has become a parliamentary style democracy where the majority party agenda rules.  This does not mean it cannot be overcome in individual campaigns but it does mean the media’s incessant focus on party dysfunction in DC overshadows the fact most Republicans vote with other Republicans and most Democrats vote with other Democrats.

From the standpoint of Democrats holding the district it is likely to disappear in November.  The audacious Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew new maps for the state (pending a court ruling) and the old 18th becomes even redder.  Lamb is likely to run for the much swinger 17th and if Saccone runs again for the new 18th it is likely he will face other Republicans for the safe seat.  Unless you are a die hard Democrat who loves watching the GOP squirm the results of this election will be a blip in the state’s Congressional delegation.

The Lamb and Saccone contest shows candidates still matter.  More so do local factors.  It is true PA-18 is a district McCain won by 11 points, Romney by 16 and Trump by 20.  But this GOP advantage is fairly new.  Go further back and you find George Bush carried it by eight in 2004 and five points in 2000.  Only two Republican Congressmen have represented the district since 2000 and Democrats represented the district as late as 1998.  Democrats still maintain a registration advantage in the district and its older demographic means many of these voters have voted for a Democrat in the past.  Combined with the Allegheny suburbs the seat is far less amenable to a non-incumbent Republican than the top-line Presidential numbers would suggest.

Contrast this with rapidly changing but still red districts in Texas that voted for Clinton in 2016 and AZ-8 (more on this in a second) where these districts had NO history of voting for a Democrat except for 2016.  GA-6 was a rude reminder for Democrats last year party loyalty runs deep and takes time to change.  Using Nancy Pelosi as a boogeyman (I mean woman) works with traditional Republican voters but not necessarily blue-collar union voters.  Republicans just learned it here.

Candidates also matter.  Lamb was a perfect blank slate voters could put their feelings into.  He studiously avoided taking a stance on hot button social issues.  By contrast, Saccone’s economic libertarianism did not help him in a union heavy district.  Former Rep. Tim Murphy fit the district well and was far more moderate on economic issues and had a decent record with the district’s unions.

Nobody should be kidding themselves Republicans are not in danger of losing the House.  At best, half of the results of this swing can be attributed to local variables.  The other half has to come down to the national environment and the President. If you are a Republican that has to scare you.

But, for all this, short of rare special elections, Democrats don’t seem intent on going after these districts.  Instead, they seem all gung-ho on going all in on changing districts in TX, CA and elsewhere that have NO history of voting for them instead of these blue-collar districts that still have some ancestral loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Special elections also occur in a vacuum.  Parties can throw millions into a one-off race.  But, when there are hundreds of legislative races, dozens of Governors and Senators up and 435 Congressional districts up they have to make strategic decisions in how to allocate their resources.

The GOP, for all its issues, is not lacking for cash.  The RNC continues to break former fundraising records, the DNC is mired in debt and the RLSC and RGA have more cash than their Democratic counterparts.  Of course, cash only goes so far.

Still, Democrats don’t seem ready to take advantage of a wave even if it builds because they seem intent on trying to crest the great wall of Texas instead of the low hanging fruit of the Midwest.  Still, Republicans should not fool themselves.  The GOP’s House majority is in grave danger in the fall. That was the story before this election, and it remains the story today.  Next month, AZ-8 will tell us whether Texas’s primary results were a fluke in favor of the GOP and the party is about to invade red territory or whether the GOP House majority has even a slight chance of surviving due to the down-ballot loyalty of Romney/Clinton voters.

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