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Republicans are selling the wrong messages from Pennsylvania

by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /
Image: Judy Kramer
Supporter of Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, Judy Kramer of Bavington, Pa., arrives early for Lamb's election night party on March 13, 2018 in Cecil, Pa.Gene J. Puskar / AP

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First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Republicans’ official explanation of their apparent loss in Pennsylvania’s special election was this: Democrat Conor Lamb only succeeded because he ran “as a Republican,” and his win in a red district was so unique that it wouldn’t be replicated in other elections in November.

And the president has clearly internalized that message, saying of Lamb at a private fundraising event last night, “[H]e said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis.’”

First of all, that’s… not accurate. Lamb explicitly ran against the tax cuts, and he also criticized the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare and said he backs Roe v. Wade despite his personal opposition to abortion.

But the GOP talking points also ignore some other important political realities. Here are three reasons Lamb’s win shouldn’t be viewed as a one-off.

1. Lamb isn’t a “unicorn”

Sure, Lamb was a particularly good candidate, but he’s hardly alone in either his personal or his political profile. Democrats in the know point us towards plenty of candidates with backgrounds in the military or as prosecutors — and/or as moderates running in Republican-leaning districts. That includes places as varied as the Detroit exurbs, southwestern Illinois, Salt Lake City suburbs, upstate New York, Little Rock and Staten Island.

The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter put it this way: “What should worry R's about PA-18 isn't that Conor Lamb was a unicorn (moderate, military, focused on CD & not Trump), but that there are lots of other D candidates w/ this profile running.”

2. Geography matters

Unlike some of the much-discussed competitive suburban districts in places outside of D.C. or Houston, for example, the Lamb district included some exurban/rural territory as well. And those are the kinds of districts – think Omaha, Neb., or Virginia’s eastern shore or California’s central valley — where a moderate Democrat could thrive, particularly as Republicans are forced to choose between alienating rural Trump fans by moderating too much or alienating suburban voters by hugging the president too closely.

3. Primaries will matter, but the intraparty divides aren’t just a Democratic problem

Republicans have pointed out that Lamb — who, like Rick Saccone, was chosen at a party convention — wasn’t subjected to a primary, which might have forced him to the left. And they’re right: Democrats can’t count on only getting candidates who are perfectly politically calibrated to their districts after contested primaries. (Exhibit A: That nasty TX-7 primary earlier this month.)

But one thing we learned from Lamb was that the Democratic base was willing to forgive his rejection of Nancy Pelosi — a move that other Democrats are now even more likely to replicate. But what happens to a Republican running in a less Trump-friendly district than PA-18 when they distance themselves from the president?

Can Republicans risk making the tax bill the last significant thing they do before November?

Not only didRepublicans pull back from their tax cut messaging in Pennsylvania — widely seen as a sign that the plan wasn’t resonating politically in the district — but they also aren’t really talking about any other 2018 policymaking before the midterms. It’s not even April, and it doesn’t feel like Republican legislators are ready to stomach much more legislating.

Yes, it’s an election year, when it can be notoriously difficult to get new bills passed by risk-averse members. And yes, Republicans have spoken generally about addressing issues like infrastructure and the opioid crisis, but the details of how and when they’ll take up those bills — particularly when they have tricky upcoming confirmation hearings for incoming State and CIA chiefs — are far from obvious.

Democratic candidates Lamb and Doug Jones were both successful in running against Washington gridlock, so doesn’t the GOP need to show that they can legislate and make Congress work more this year?

A mismatch from Congress amid student protests

And speaking of congressional inaction… Yesterday, we saw the largest protest of its kind in American history when students walked out of their classrooms to demand action on guns. And in the halls of Congress we also saw an outraged call for action on …. dog safety on airplanes. The story of a puppy’s death in an overhead compartment is unquestionably awful and worthy of an angry response, but it was still a strange mismatch to see that contrast against the backdrop of a huge national story on gun violence.

McDaniel switches races, will seek open Senate seat

Just two weeks after saying he would primary Roger Wicker, Chris McDaniel now says he’ll run for the seat vacated by retiring Thad Cochran. And what’s more, he’s urging Republicans to “unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members.” That’s not exactly sitting well with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who is expected to name someone other than McDaniel to fill the Cochran seat temporarily until the special election. Check out Bryant’s statement about McDaniel’s switch: “This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential.” Oof.

Keep an eye on the Gina Haspel nomination

Rand Paul announced yesterday that he will oppose the nominations of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and Gina Haspel as CIA Director, citing specific concerns with Haspel’s role in the CIA's interrogation and detention programs. With Paul’s announcement — and John McCain’s misgivings and ongoing absence from the Senate for health reasons — Haspel will probably end up needing at least a Democrat or two to pull her through. So who ends up supporting her?

By the way, don’t miss this statement from Rep. Liz Cheney — Dick Cheney’s daughter: “Gina Haspel has spent her career defending the American people and homeland. @RandPaul is defending and sympathizing with terrorists.”

WaPo: Trump mocked Trudeau, bluffed on trade deficit

From the Washington Post today: “President Trump boasted in a fundraising speech Wednesday that he made up information in a meeting with the leader of a top U.S. ally, saying he insisted to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the United States runs a trade deficit with its neighbor to the north without knowing whether that was the case.”

Saudi crown prince has blocked his mother from seeing his father

And finally, don’t miss this scoop from Carol Lee and Courtney Kube in advance of the visit of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to the White House: “When Saudi Arabia's crown prince visits the White House next week, he's expected to be welcomed as a reformer who's expanded women's rights in one of the most restrictive countries in the world, allowing them to drive and attend sports events.

"Yet there is one Saudi woman whom U.S. officials say has not benefited from the prince's rise: his own mother. Fourteen current and former senior U.S. officials told NBC News that intelligence shows Prince Mohammed bin Salman — often referred to by his initials MBS — blocked his mother from seeing his father, King Salman, more than two years ago and has kept her away from him as the young prince rapidly amassed power.”

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