PA Special Election: Same Song, Different Verse?

By John O. Sullivan

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President

Today, citizens of Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district head to the polls to elect a new congressman in a special election. The seat was opened by the resignation of long-time congressman Tim Murphy. Murphy, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, resigned after it was revealed he had urged his mistress to have an abortion.

This election has, as many other recent elections, been widely touted as a referendum on national issues, and especially as a referendum on President Trump and his performance.

It is easy to see why that is a compelling narrative. President Trump won the district by 20% in the 2016 presidential election. The district was considered so safe for Republicans that incumbent congressman Tim Murphy wasn’t even contested in the general election. However, Democratic candidate Conor Lamb, a former Marine officer and Assistant US Attorney, is leading in a variety of polls. With President Trump’s rising unpopularity, it is easy to assign the blame.

We have heard this narrative continually propagated around special elections since President Trump took office. In Alabama, to replace Jeff Sessions; in Georgia, to replace Tom Price; In Montana, to replace Ryan Zinke, and in Virginia’s off-year elections, as well as a multitude of other, less covered races in red states. In only Alabama and Virginia did a Democrat win where a Republican had previously held office. It begs one to ask, how much of a negative impact is President Trump having on his Republican counterparts? It certainly doesn’t seem like much.

What the national pundits and prognosticators are ignoring is that not every local election fits a national narrative. Conor Lamb is a moderate, socially conservative, pro-gun, Law and Order, former-prosecutor, veteran. Which is about 15 different ways of saying extremely electable in a red district. He does not at all fit the mold of a Democrat in the national dialogue. In fact, he has openly rejected the national dialogue, saying that he doesn’t support Nancy Pelosi and refusing to speak about President Trump. We also have to consider the fact that voters may be reacting to an incumbent who left office in a sex scandal. He is facing off against Rick Saccone, an ultra-religious conservative, who sponsored a bill that would have the phrase “In God We Trust” plastered in every school, endorses the use of waterboarding, wants to cut K-12 education to pay down the national debt, and once said that it was God’s wish for religious people to rule the country.

So please explain, how, in what way, is the campaign of Conor Lamb a referendum on Trump’s policies? A candidate who is not your typical Democrat, who endorses conservative policies, and likes guns is not a liberal challenge to a conservative Goliath.

We do have to consider that millions of dollars of outside money has poured into the election. Over $15 million, with a roughly 2 to 1 split in favor of the Republican, has been spent in the election. Saccone has also been the recipient of vocal support from President Trump, not unlike Roy Moore, which lends credence to the idea of a local referendum on national issues. But the shoe just doesn’t fit.

This election certainly has the potential to be a surprise win for the Democrats. However, it is hardly a referendum on national issues like Donald Trump’s presidency. A moderate, even conservative Democrat, against an incredibly conservative Republican is a matchup ripe to scare independents and moderates to the Democrat, even in a “safe” Republican district.

Tomorrow, we will see who the voters of Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district choose to represent them. No matter what happens, I am sure the national talking heads will come out to further their own narrative with the results. But, 1 year, 1 month, and 21 days into his presidency, maybe it’s time to accept that not EVERYTHING is about Trump.


Feature Image Courtesy of Politico

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