US President Donald Trump’s Republican Party was on course Wednesday for a stunning defeat in a key special congressional election in Pennsylvania, adding to the turmoil engulfing his administration after the sacking of his top diplomat Rex Tillerson.
Democrats exulted in the stunning performance by one of their own in the knife’s edge race, insisting that their unexpectedly strong showing deep in Trump country — unthinkable just a year ago — bodes well for the opposition party ahead of November’s midterm elections.
With Tuesday’s race still officially undecided, and county officials counting provisional and absentee ballots that will likely determine the outcome, the Democratic candidate Conor Lamb declared victory shortly after midnight, in a district Trump won by nearly 20 points in the 2016 presidential contest.
Lamb’s party swiftly kicked into gear to proclaim that Trump and his Republicans could face a political reckoning this year — with control of Congress up for grabs.
“As we head into the 2018 midterms, the momentum is undeniable for Democratic candidates running up and down the ballot,” Democratic National Committee head Tom Perez said.
“Pennsylvania is just the beginning.”
Somber Republican leaders were forced to acknowledge that Lamb’s performance had dealt a sharp blow to their prospects of maintaining control of the Senate and House of Representatives.
“This should be a wake up call,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told Republican lawmakers in a closed-door conference in the US Capitol on Wednesday, according to a person in the room.
Speaking to reporters, however, Ryan sought to downplay the impact, suggesting Lamb — a 33-year-old former federal prosecutor and US Marine officer — was an unusual Democrat who ran a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-establishment campaign.
“Both of these candidates ran as conservatives,” Ryan said. “I just don’t think you’re going to see that across the country” in November.
The race has not yet been officially called — with all precincts reporting, Lamb was ahead of his Republican rival Rick Saccone by 579 votes, or 49.8 percent to 49.6 percent.
But Democrats were not masking their delight over the political ramifications of having potentially ousted a Republican in a conservative, working-class bastion.
All 435 House seats are up for election every two years. Senate terms are for six years, and 35 of the 100 seats are in play in November.
– ‘No district is safe’ –
Bradley Beychok, who heads the pro-Democrat political action committee American Bridge, offered a bluntly optimistic take of what might lie in store for the opposition party.
“The results in Pennsylvania spell disaster for Republicans in November; if they can’t win in a longtime Republican stronghold, no district is safe,” he said.
Trump campaigned in person for Saccone, a culturally conservative state representative.
But the election was held just as the White House was whipsawed by political upheaval including a series of staff ousters.
On Tuesday, the day of the vote in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, Trump sacked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, drawing renewed attention to the chaos in the top echelons of the administration.
Trump’s own low approval rating no doubt contributed to Saccone’s poor showing.
But Lamb, acutely aware of how his district voted in 2016, refused to pile on against the president during the campaign, seeking to minimize the political divisions that have set many Americans on edge.
“I know people voted for the president and voted for me,” Lamb told CNN.
His performance in a conservative stronghold — Democrats had not even fielded a candidate against the Republican incumbent in recent elections — suggests far more congressional districts might be in play in November than the 24 seats necessary for Democrats to reclaim the House.
According to the Cook Political Report, there are 118 Republican-held House districts that are less Republican than the one to be decided in Pennsylvania.
The party in power in Washington traditionally loses seats during the midterm elections of a president’s first term. But there are signals that 2018 could be a banner year for Democrats.
They over-performed in five special elections in deep-red districts last year, including in Georgia, Montana and South Carolina.
And strategists point to unprecedented Democratic grass-roots activism, strong fundraising, and competitive candidates that have combined to animate voters this year.