Last night should not have been a surprise. And yet, here we are talking about what just happened in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District (PA-18). Late into the night, Democrat Conor Lamb seemingly eeked out the narrowest of a huge upset victory over Republican Rick Saccone in a special election to a district that Donald Trump carried by almost 20% just 16 months ago.
What on earth just happened there, and what does this mean for the campaign here in Nevada? Let’s hop over to the Keystone State as we figure out who’s holding the keys to victory this fall.
What the hell happened in PA-18?
First off, there’s President Donald Trump. Though Trump himself carried this region handily (which greatly aided in his upset victory in Pennsylvania and nationwide) in 2016, a recent Monmouth poll of PA-18 suggests that his decision to impose new aluminum and steel tariffs failed to get all those Trump-voting blue-collar white Democrats into the habit of voting only for Republicans. If anything, Trump’s unceremonious sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and ongoing Russia investigation woes may have given voters crucial last-minute reminders of the instability that’s come to define the Trump presidency.
Before we proceed on talk of “The Blue Wave”, let’s keep in mind the old adage that all politics is local. While it’s felt far less true in recent years, this week’s special election reminds us that local factors can occasionally still outweigh national trends. Southwestern Pennsylvania has historically been a union stronghold, hence why Rick Saccone’s anti-union voting record came back to bite him on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, Conor Lamb has been trying his best to separate himself from national Democrats on issues like gun violence and climate action, and even by vowing to vote against House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) for Speaker, while focusing on “bread and butter” issues like Social Security, health care, and job creation to win voters.
Once we take all this into consideration, this election feels like more than just a simple referendum on the Trump presidency. Ultimately, voters opted for a candidate who seemingly made a genuine effort to connect with them over someone who was relying on Trump’s coattails and right-wing independent expenditures to win this seat.
First the earthquake, then the tsunami?
However, it’s not as if Trump wasn’t a factor here. With his trip to Pennsylvania last Saturday, and with the White House’s last-minute full-court press to rescue Saccone’s campaign, Trump most definitely factored into the result. If Trump couldn’t even save a seat like PA-18 for Republicans, how is he supposed to help in areas where his unpopularity hews closer to the national average?
For reference, Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District (NV-02) is somewhat more diverse than Pennsylvania’s 18th, and NV-02 gave Trump a less commanding 12.3% win in 2016. While Nevada Democrats have yet to mount a serious effort to challenge Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City), the PA-18 results add some real, hard evidence to rural Democrats’ pleas with party leadership to take their turf more seriously.
Democrats have mostly led the “generic Congressional ballot” for over a year, and several recent polls point to a coming “Blue Wave” that won’t just deliver the House to Democrats but might even put control of the Senate in play as well. Even before this week’s special election, Democrats have generally been overperforming their historic baselines in special elections across the nation. If anything, the PA-18 result is another key data point that suggests Democrats are primed for major gains across the nation this fall.
But not so fast, Nevada Democrats!
Now that Conor Lamb has edged ahead of Rick Saccone in a seat that should have been a “gimme” for Republicans, Democrats have already been quick to crow their victory… Here in Nevada. And to a large extent, they have the privilege of doing so today. Republicans underperformed “bigly” among the very voters they need to turn out “bigly” to make Donald Trump’s political brand great again, while urban and suburban moderates who were initially turned off by Trump are now registering their discontent with their votes.
But before Nevada Democrats get too giddy, they need to take another look at those voter registration numbers. Notice something there? (Hint: As Trump’s poll numbers have fallen, so have Nevada Democrats’ share of active voters.) While there’s still time for these numbers to change, this apparent failure to translate progressive enthusiasm into active voters shows a clear need for Nevada Democrats to step away from the snarky press releases and build the kind of base they will need to actually win the election.
The “Blue Wave” is likely coming. Are Democrats ready to ride it?
Now before Republicans start feeling smug, let’s remember how Senator Dean Heller (R) deftly avoided media and constituents last Friday just to file for reelection. Does that read like a mark of confidence to you? Same goes for Attorney General and Gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt (R), who has made it a habit to dodge questions on how he’d govern. All we need to do is observe the behavior of these two men who will probably form the top of the Republican ticket to conclude that they’re feeling anything but confident about their party’s fortunes this year.
Still, Democrats can’t afford to take a tsunami for granted. Winning still involves a lot of work. Pennsylvania Democrats and their progressive allies had to put a lot of work (and a good amount of money) into flipping PA-18. If Nevada Democrats want to ride “The Blue Wave” to victory up and down the ticket, they must prepare by doing the same.
Cover photo by Erik Drost, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia.