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Why the Pennsylvania special election was a gut punch for the GOP

Democrat Conor Lamb's apparent victory should set off alarm bells for Republicans and Donald Trump.
Image: GOP PA Congressional Candidate Rick Saccone Holds Election Night Event
GOP PA Congressional Candidate Rick Saccone gestures as he speaks to supporters after his race was too close to call at the Youghiogheny Country Club on March 13, 2018 in Elizabeth Township, Pennsylvania.Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

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 — Why the Pennsylvania special election was a gut punch for the GOP: Yes, last night’s special congressional election in Pennsylvania was close; NBC News didn't call an apparent winner until 5:19 am ET. And, yes, this district won't exist in its current form come November due to the state's new map.

But the outcome — Democrat Conor Lamb getting 641 more votes than Republican Rick Saccone in a district President Trump carried by 20 points in 2016 — was a gut punch for Trump and the GOP 237 days before the 2018 midterms. Here are five reasons why:

1. The result was further evidence that Democrats are WAY overperforming from 2016:

In the eight major races of 2017 and 2018, including last night, Democrats are performing on average more than 12 points better than Hillary Clinton did in these states and districts. And last night it was 20 points better.

  • KS-4 in 2016: Mike Pompeo 61%, Daniel Giroux 30% (R+31)
  • KS-4 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 60%, Clinton 33% (R+27)
  • KS-4 in 2017: Ron Estes 53%, James Thompson 46% (R+7)
  • GA-6 in 2016: Tom Price 62%, Rodney Stooksbury 38% (R+24)
  • GA-6 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 48%, Clinton 47% (R+1)
  • GA-6 in 2017 (initial round): Jon Ossoff 48%, Karen Handel 20%, Bob Gray 11%, Dan Moody 9%, Judson Hill 9%.
  • GA-6 in 2017 (runoff): Handel 52%, Ossoff 48% (R+4)
  • MT-AL in 2016: Ryan Zinke 56%, Denise Juneau 40% (R+16)
  • MT in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 36% (R+21)
  • MT-AL in 2017: Greg Gianforte 50%, Rob Quist 44% (R+6)
  • SC-5 in 2016: Mick Mulvaney 59%, Fran Person 39% (R+20)
  • SC-5 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 39% (R+18)
  • SC-5 in 2017: Ralph Norman 51%, Archie Parnell 48% (R+3)
  • NJ GOV in 2013: Chris Christie 60%, Barbara Buono 38% (R+22)
  • NJ GOV in 2016 (presidential results): Clinton 55%, Trump 41% (D+14)
  • NJ GOV in 2017: Phil Murphy 56%, Kim Guadagno 42% (D+14)
  • VA GOV in 2013: Terry McAuliffe 48%, Ken Cuccinelli 45% (D+3)
  • VA in 2016 (presidential results): Clinton 50%, Trump 44% (D+6)
  • VA GOV in 2017: Ralph Northam 54%, Ed Gillespie 45% (D+9)
  • AL SEN in 2016: Shelby 64%, Crumpton 36% (R+28)
  • AL in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 62%, Clinton 34% (R+28)
  • AL SEN in 2017: Doug Jones 50%, Roy Moore 48% (D+2)
  • PA-18 in 2016: Tim Murphy (R) unopposed
  • PA-18 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 58%, Clinton 38% (R+20)
  • PA-18 in 2018: Conor Lamb 50%, Rick Saccone 50% (D+641 votes)

2. The GOP’s messaging and money couldn’t save Saccone

The Republican Party and key GOP outside groups spent more than $6 million on TV ads, and they threw the kitchen sink at Lamb (hitting his opposition to the tax-cut legislation, tying him to Nancy Pelosi, and going to crime in the final days). And remember, the GOP can’t do what it did for PA-18 in 50 or 60 races come November.

3. Trump couldn’t save Saccone, either

President Trump inserted himself in this race, campaigning for Saccone on Saturday and timing his announcement on steel tariffs right before this contest. As we wrote last week, Trump turned a minor race into a major referendum on himself. “After all the money, the campaigning and the tariff timing, to have a Republican lose in a district Trump carried by 20 points would suggest there’s not more the president can do to help GOP candidates, even in Trump Country,” we said.

4. Lamb’s apparent victory gives him a head start for November

With Pennsylvania’s new congressional map, Lamb is expected to run against Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., in PA-17 – a more favorable district than the current PA-18 district. And so Lamb’s victory helps him clear the PA-17 field, it gives him incumbent protection services and it puts Rothfus on notice.

5. It could trigger some more GOP retirements

Finally, last night’s result could very well scare off a handful of GOP incumbents who are on the fence about running in 2018. The good news for Republicans is that many filing deadlines have already passed. The bad news is that one or two more GOP retirements in semi-competitive districts could end up proving decisive in November’s race for control of Congress. That’s maybe why Republicans have been spinning the results so much — essentially saying, “Hey, last night wasn’t THAT bad” — so they can prevent more retirements.

Now no single special-election outcome predicts how the midterms will turn out. We remember when Dems won a Pennsylvania special election in 2010 and still got creamed in the midterms. But here’s another way to view last night: The Cook Political Report lists PA-18 as an R+11 district, and there are more than 100 GOP-districts that are LESS REPUBLICAN than it is.

How Lamb distanced himself from Pelosi in a way Ossoff couldn’t

One of the storylines going into last night’s contest was the GOP trying to tie Lamb to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, even though Lamb said he didn’t support her for leader. Well, while Pelosi is still toxic for Democrats, Lamb was able to counteract that by 1) distancing himself from Pelosi, and 2) having a story to tell.

Democratic observers tell us that someone with Lamb’s bio (Marine, prosecutor) was better suited to fending off the GOP’s Pelosi attacks than, say, Jon Ossoff did in GA-6, because Ossoff didn’t have the same background and story that Lamb has.

Update on the Trump vs. Biden proxy fight

Last week, we described the PA-18 race as a proxy fight between Trump (who campaigned for Saccone on Saturday) and former Vice President Joe Biden (who stumped for Lamb last week). Well, Biden’s side won — narrowly.

And a Biden supporter emails us, “Lamb is the 16th Biden supported candidate to win this off-cycle. And like Lamb, they haven't been lay-ups...Alabama Senate, rural Virginia state leg races, Trump state leg districts in Florida, etc… He has already done stuff for candidates in PA, WI, MN and MI — places we need to win in both ‘18 & ‘20, plus he's traveled to places like Montana & will be in North Dakota this week, as one of the few national Dems who can actually help there. At this point, I'm not sure there's anywhere in the US that a Dem wouldn't want Biden's help, and so far, he's saying yes as much as he can.”

Style vs. substance on Trump’s ouster of Rex Tillerson

When it comes to substance, Trump dumping Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state was a positive step — for Trump’s administration, for America’s allies and for State Department personnel. Bottom line: Tillerson’s tenure was a disaster — he didn’t speak for Trump, morale at the State Department was in shambles — and it striking that it went on as long as it did.

But as a matter of style, how Trump sacked Tillerson is frightening Washington. He’s no longer listening to those who push back on him. Indeed, all of those who have tried to restrain Trump — Tillerson, Gary Cohn, Hope Hicks, Jared Kushner, even Ivanka Trump — are either gone or are weaker today than they were months ago.

The House GOP’s Russia conclusion is falling apart

Don’t lose sight of this story: The House Republican Intel conclusion on the Russia investigation — that there was no collusion and that Russia preferred Trump over Clinton — is unraveling. And it’s unraveling from House Republicans themselves.

Check out this statement from Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.:

“It remains clear Russia sought to sow the seeds of discord and challenge the reliability of the 2016 election cycle. Russia is not our friend. Russia will do what it can, when it can, to undermine the foundations of our democracy. It is also clear, based on the evidence, Russia had disdain for Secretary Clinton and was motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm her candidacy or undermine her Presidency had she prevailed.It is crystal clear Russia's ultimate goal was to turn Americans against Americans, undercut our confidence in the electoral process, and sow the seeds of discord. On that measure, we are in direct control—as Americans—of whether they succeed or not."