Last week Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District went from voting for then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 by roughly 20 points to, at the moment barring a recount, voting for a Democrat by just under three tenths of a percent.
As with each special election since the beginning of President Trump’s term, the pundits and strategists have been putting their spin on it to try to somehow line it up with the agenda they are seeking to push, no matter the results.
What are clear however are the facts. Democrat Conor Lamb, a Marine officer and Ivy-League educated former prosecutor, ran as essentially a conservative Republican according to the RNC and others. He was pro-life, pro-firearms, and “anti-Nancy Pelosi.”
In contrast, Pennsylvania State Representative Rick Saccone ran under the message that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump.” While seemingly a smart strategy in a district that seemingly was so heavily for Trump in 2016, the fact that it didn’t work out is indeed noteworthy.
Pennsylvania’s 18th District, at least until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s ordered redistricting takes place in just a few months for this November, is a mix of both “Trump Country” and traditional “Republican” strongholds. Located largely on the Alleghany Plateau, it is a mix of Pittsburgh suburbs and rust belt former industrial centers.
The Cook Political Index rated the district as R+11 in 2017, which, given Trump’s margin of victory in the district, represents well how Trump swung the remaining “Reagan Democrats” to his cause to surprisingly win states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin back in November 2016. Trump outperformed Mitt Romney’s 17-point win in 2012 as well as Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) 11-point win in 2008.
The fact that now, almost a year and a half later, the district went blue may speak less about national trends but more about how some districts still have voters that are up for grabs.
In our current hyperpolarized time, many political strategists and operatives will suggest, often rightly, that the key to winning in the general election is to drive out the base. This is instead of trying to swing what is believed to be an increasingly non-existent middle of swing voters.
However in the case of PA-18, those swing voters actually existed and were swung. While Saccone did not have any major “push” factors himself as a candidate, Lamb’s campaign and his own background undoubtedly was a strong “pull” throwback to a moderate Democrat message that has been lacking in the national discourse in recent years.
It remains to be seen whether Lamb will join Alabama’s new Senator Doug Jones in what seems to be a small rebuilding of the Democrats’ moderate wings that were decimated in the 2010 Tea Party wave, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched whether from evaluating Lamb personally or his likely political calculus.
Nowadays pundits and strategists have become very accustomed to districts and voters behaving like they’ve always done in the past. Indeed that expectation often proves true – until it doesn’t, as in both 2016 and since.
The special elections this past year have seen point swings in some districts that remind us of the reality that voters are not stern partisans that cannot be swayed, whether in choosing to come out to vote or in the candidate they choose to vote for.
Current our country sees candidates often play to the bases of their parties, believing that is an effective way to both nullify primary challenges and win the general election. While that trend is in some ways both a reflection of as well as fuel for the fires of polarization, elections such as PA-18 show that the political calculus doesn’t always reward such a strategy.
Elected officials are creatures of opinion and habit, and as they see they can win by appealing to a broad and unified middle we will undoubtedly see them move in that direction. While this will not necessarily iron out real differences in policy belief that do and always will exist, nonetheless it is a realistic step towards simmering down our currently overheated politics at least a bit.