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GOP leaders: Lamb’s performance a fluke, not a wake-up call for party

ptrelectionnight216031418
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Conor Lamb greets his supporters following his apparent victory in a special congressional district election at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe in Cecil in the early morning hours of March 14, 2018.

Republican leaders Wednesday publicly dismissed Tuesday’s special election results for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, calling the still too-close-to-call race a fluke.

The chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania told the Tribune-Review that state party officials won’t change tactics heading into the midterm elections, despite being on the verge of losing a long-held GOP seat in a district President Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016.

“We’re going to be on our A game for the midterms consistent with how midterm elections have been going these past 30 years,” Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio said.

The party not in the White House typically performs better during midterm elections.

But Democrat Conor Lamb’s razor-thin lead Wednesday has some wondering if the party could take control of the House in November and has House Speaker Paul Ryan privately sounding an alarm.

“After last night, I think it’s much more likely that the Democrats take the house,” said Paul Sracic, chair of the political science department at Youngstown State University. “And I was someone who was saying for the last year that it was basically impossible for the Democrats to win the house.”

Lamb, 33, a former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran from Mt. Lebanon, holds a slim lead of fewer than 700 votes Wednesday over Republican Rick Saccone, 60, a state legislator from Elizabeth Township and former Air Force officer, according to unofficial vote counts. Election officials in Allegheny, Washington, Greene and Westmoreland counties were to start counting provisional and military ballots this week.

Lamb declared victory late Tuesday. Saccone has not conceded.

Political analysts around the country pointed to Lamb’s performance as the start of a strong showing for Democrats in November’s midterm elections. “Blue wave” and “#bluewave” were trending on Twitter on Tuesday night.

“It has Republicans quaking in their boots,” Robert Morris University political science professor Philip Harold said Wednesday.

Sracic said Tuesday’s election showed Trump’s coalition is fracturing. Trump brought together working-class voters, social conservatives and more traditional, economic conservatives to win the White House in 2016. Now, the more traditional conservatives are leaving the party, Sracic said.

“That’s got to be very worrisome. Republicans can’t just win with working-class voters and social conservatives,” Sracic said. “Republicans have to be very, very nervous. This is very, very bad.”

DiGiorgio didn’t appear to be nervous or quaking in his boots.

Lamb didn’t have to compete in a Democratic primary to win his party’s nomination, a process that can produce more liberal candidates or push candidates to the left, DiGiorgio said. Democrats looking to challenge Republicans in November will have to fight through a primary, and it’s unlikely that another candidate in the mold of Lamb could emerge as the Democratic nominee. DiGiorgio tagged Lamb as a pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative who ran as a Democrat, mimicking statements by Ryan on Wednesday.

“Democrats chose to run someone who is a conservative,” DiGiorgio said.

Harold said if Democrats across the country are smart, they will continue to nominate candidates like Lamb in the midterms. He said Democratic primaries could produce a crop of “battle-tested” candidates ready to take on Republicans in the November general election.

Sracic wondered how many more Lambs were out there and whether they could survive a primary. Democrats may also have to worry about a more liberal wing of the party rising up to challenge centrist candidates, similar to what happened with the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans.

“The Democrats have to decide, do we want to be pure or do we want to win?” Sracic said.

Neither DiGiorgio nor Ryan thought Tuesday’s election reflected a lack of support for Trump, who campaigned with Saccone twice and sent his son Donald Jr. and daughter Ivanka to the district for events. Ryan said Trump’s presence in the campaign helped to make the race as close as it is, giving Saccone needed votes.

Privately, however, Ryan told House Republicans the race should serve as a “bit of a wake-up call,” according to the Associated Press. Ryan told Republicans they need to “get to work,” raise money and not be caught off guard heading into a midterm campaign season where Democratic enthusiasm is real. That’s according to two people familiar with Ryan’s remarks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

To reporters, Ryan said that Republicans in the midterms should run on accomplishments like tax reform and make sure they raise and spend more money than their Democratic challengers. Lamb’s campaign raised about $3.8 million compared with about $900,000 by Saccone’s, according to campaign finance reports. Outside groups spent more than $10 million — mostly on TV ads — to support Saccone and go after Lamb. Other groups spent roughly $1.6 million to support Lamb and go after Saccone.

“There’s a lot we’ve done. There’s a lot were going to do, and there’s a great record to run on,” Ryan said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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