Once again, those who religiously follow American politics will be watching a special election Tuesday for signs that Democrats could be headed toward a wave election this fall.
In the case of today’s 18th congressional district race in suburban Pittsburgh, Democrats may have already won — no matter who actually wins the race. After all, this is a race that was not even supposed to be contested.
Consider the following:
Trump won the Pennsylvania district by 20 points in 2016, and Republican Mitt Romney won it by 17 points in 2012.
In 2016, the Republican incumbent Tim Murphy (who resigned after a sex scandal) didn’t even have a Democratic opponent.
Republicans have outspent Democrats in the special election by a 3-to-1 margin.
And yet, as voters head to the polls Tuesday, the indication is that the Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, is headed to a win.
A Monmouth University poll released Monday showed Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone in a squeaker — 51 to 45 percent (with a 5.1 percent margin of error) — and that’s even if there is a very low turnout, a scenario that generally favors the GOP.
Election watchers like the Cook Political Report call the race a “tossup.” That the race is even contested at all says a lot about how Trump is being viewed now in an area he crushed a year-and-a-half ago. Statewide in Pennsylvania, a state Trump narrowly won in 2016, his approval rating is now just 42 percent, according to the Gallup poll.
Trump, at least, is accepting the premise that he is the biggest factor in the election. In an attempt, perhaps, to turn things around in a single House race that might embarrass him, the president announced plans to impose steel and aluminum tariffs, hoping that will play well in traditional steel country and to his broader base. He also paid a personal visit to the state on Saturday, where he delivered a meandering speech that was largely about himself, before inviting Saccone on the stage.
“This guy should win easily,” Trump told the crowd at the rally.
And yet, the race has been anything but easy.
While Democrats could find many reasons to celebrate the results Tuesday night — even if they lose a close race — they might want to temper their enthusiasm when they consider how the Democrat basically ran as Republican-lite.
Lamb campaigned as a fiscal conservative who strongly favors gun rights and is personally opposed to abortion (though he would vote for abortion-rights policies). He also ran firmly opposed to Nancy Pelosi being the Democratic leader.
At a time when Democrats are trying to figure out the best way to take on Trump and evolve as a party, they’re no doubt happy to see grassroots supporters pumped up for an election like this one. But the type of candidates they recruit in Pittsburgh probably won’t be the same as they will be in Portland.
James Pindell can be reached at [email protected]