Is the GOP Careening Toward Disaster in November?

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Vice President Mike Pence, right, stands with State Representative Rick Saccone after a fundraising event ahead of next week's special election for Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district

Sometimes I try to imagine what we'd be going through right now if a few thousand votes had gone a different way in 2016 and Hillary Clinton had won the electoral college in addition to the popular vote. There would have no doubt been a conservative uprising along the lines of the Tea Party, presented as a principled opposition to big government but really little more than a collective loathing for President Clinton. Not that she would have been turning the nation into a socialist hellhole, since with Republicans still in control of Congress there would only have been so much she could accomplish. We probably would have had at least one or two government shutdowns by now, and Republicans would be demanding deep cuts to federal spending, lest we subject our grandchildren to the horrors of a budget deficit.

And we'd all be debating just how big the anti-Clinton wave would be in 2018, and whether it would give Republicans the 60-vote margin they'd need in the Senate to overcome any Democratic filibuster. Instead we're contemplating a Democratic wave, fed by disgust with President Donald Trump.

The off-year and special elections that ordinarily garner only limited interest are now weighted with portent of what will happen in November. The latest, happening a week from Tuesday, takes place in the 18th district of Pennsylvania, tucked in the southwest corner of the state. Donald Trump won this district by 20 points in 2016; the Democrats didn't even bother to field a candidate for the House. But then the fiercely pro-life incumbent congressman, Tim Murphy, resigned after it was revealed he had an affair and encouraged his mistress to get an abortion when she thought she was pregnant, leaving the seat open.

Democrats recruited one of those charismatic young political novices who usually lose: Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and assistant U.S. attorney. Running against Republican state representative Rick Saccone, Lamb has brought in small donations at an impressive clip, outraising Saccone by nearly 5 to 1 in the first seven weeks of the year. That (and their internal polling, no doubt) has put the national GOP into something of a panic; they've poured over $9 million dollars into the race so far, and President Trump will be heading there to campaign this week—though even in a conservative district, that may help Lamb as much as Saccone.

With control of the House in doubt, every seat takes on a desperate importance for Republicans. That's especially true in Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court recently ruled that the GOP's gerrymander was unconstitutional, since it engineered a 13-5 Republican advantage in the House delegation despite the fact that there are 800,000 more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans. With the newly drawn maps, Democrats are sure to pick up a few seats in November even without Lamb, bringing the possibility of a Democratic House that much closer.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Pennsylvania race is how Republicans are struggling to find the message that will take Lamb down even in this heavily Republican district. They've tried repeating the name "Nancy Pelosi" as many times as possible, which hasn't done the job, particularly since Lamb, who's pretty conservative for a Democrat, says he won't vote for her for Speaker if he wins. Now they're hitting him on immigration, accusing him of supporting sanctuary cities, apparently on the grounds that Pelosi supports them (seriously). For a while they ran ads touting the Trump tax cut, then dropped them, assumedly because they weren't hurting Lamb.

Even if Lamb loses, it's going to be close, a testament to the challenge Republicans are facing right now. Their biggest problem is that Democrats are fired up, and if you want proof, look at what just happened in Texas. The state holds its party primaries on Tuesday, and in early voting, Democrats just blew Republicans out of the water. To repeat: in Texas.

In 2014—a big Republican year, remember—just under 600,000 Texans voted early in the primaries. The figure this year was almost 900,000, and Democrats drove the increase. The Texas Tribune examined the ten most populous counties (which account for over two-thirds of the state's vote), and they found that while four years ago Republican early votes outnumbered Democratic early votes by 68,530, this year Democratic votes outnumbered Republican votes by 87,291. While Republicans slightly increased their turnout from four years ago, Democratic turnout more than doubled.

We have no idea how that might translate to the general election, but one thing it suggests is that Representative Beto O'Rourke, the likely Democratic nominee for Senate, might have an excellent shot at unseating Ted Cruz. What we know for sure is that at the moment, Democrats are much more enthusiastic about voting, and the party has Donald Trump to thank.

It must burn Trump up to no end that November's election is looking so good for Democrats when the economy is doing as well as it is, with unemployment still low and wages rising (albeit slowly). In ordinary circumstances we'd expect that to at least mitigate the loss the president's party will suffer, but nothing about our current circumstances are ordinary. Which is why Democrats may in the long run decide that despite whatever havoc he causes, Donald Trump will have been very good for their party. Particularly if they can take back one or both houses of Congress and spend the next two years making every day he remains in office an unceasing torture. 

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