You could tell that the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District would make for a long night when anonymous Republican operatives told reporters late Tuesday afternoon that it would be a short night.
One “Republican with knowledge” told NBC News on Tuesday that Democrat Conor Lamb could beat Republican Rick Saccone by “as many as six.” And what kind of cynic would not take a Republican With Knowledge at his or her word?
Lamb did not win by 6 percentage points, of course. Though Saccone has not conceded, Lamb is the apparent winner by 627 out of a total 228,378 votes cast. It was not an “early night,” as anyone who was still captivated by Steve Kornacki’s absentee ballot tabulations at midnight can attest. The pre-emptive groaning from Republicans about their own hopelessness was a painfully obvious lowering of expectations that would allow them to pretend-declare victory in a race that shouldn’t have been competitive in the first place. Right on cue, anonymous White House officials patted themselves on the back on Tuesday for their tremendous work in ensuring that a Republican only barely lost an R+11 district that Donald Trump carried by 20 points all of 16 months ago.
A “top House GOP source” took similar pride but did have the modesty to tell Politico that the situation—which included dumping north of $10 million dollars on the losing candidate—was “definitely less than ideal.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, during a Wednesday morning press conference, gave credit to President Trump, who “helped close this race” by hosting a rally in the district over the weekend. It’s an interesting position to take, that the president could be lauded as a “closer” when the candidate he supported didn’t appear to … win. But Ryan had more where that came from.
“Both of these candidates, the Republican and the Democrat, ran as conservatives,” Ryan argued. “Ran as pro-gun, pro-life, anti–Nancy Pelosi conservatives. And I think that’s the takeaway we see here.”
One can think of other takeaways beyond the race being a great night for conservatism. Let’s look at that litany of issues that Ryan mentioned. On guns, Lamb did not support limits to magazine clips or a new ban on assault weapons, but he did support the sort of expansion of background checks in the Manchin-Toomey proposal, which many conservatives claim would mark the beginning of the end of the Second Amendment. He holds the Tim Kaine position on abortion: He doesn’t personally support abortion but believes it should be legally available—a position known as being “pro-choice.” In the same interview in which he told the Weekly Standard that he does not use the term pro-life to describe himself, Lamb also said that he would have voted against the 20-week abortion ban. It is true that he said he wanted “new leadership” in Congress and would not support Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi’s feelings were likely unhurt.
In truth, Lamb attacked the aspects of conservatism dearest to Ryan’s heart. Lamb emphasized that he would protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security from the kind of cuts that made Ryan a conservative star during the Obama administration. He also criticized the defining legislative accomplishment of Ryan’s career, the GOP tax bill, as a “giveaway” to the rich. He was not a fan of Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, and voters for whom health care was a top priority broke strongly toward Lamb. Lamb won on a policy message that will travel well in 2018 across the urban and rural divide: an anti-Ryan economic message.
The most amusing explanation is that which focuses on Saccone’s personal weakness as a candidate, the go-to excuse that rank-and-file Republican members and operatives were publicly citing Wednesday morning. One strategist feared that Saccone’s “porn ’stache” played a role in his downfall. Rick Saccone may have had a more impressive résumé than the vast majority of House Republicans, but he didn’t have that “it” factor.
Reader, do yourself a favor: Take a look-see at members of the House Republican Conference. Do you think Glenn Grothman make it to the United States Congress through sheer force of his charisma? Did John Faso charm his way into the hearts and minds of New York’s 19th Congressional District? How was George Holding able to inspire the masses in North Carolina’s 13th? Saccone just didn’t “pop” quite like Peter King or Andy Harris.
Democrats will not win all R+11 districts in November, if any. But the point of drawing R+11 districts is to ensure that Democrats win zero of them, for as long as they last, and they won one of them Tuesday night. Republicans don’t really believe any of this spin, which is why we call it “spin.” It’s a wonder that they even bother.
If you think Slate’s election coverage matters…
Support our work: become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus