Republicans on Wednesday seemed paralyzed in disagreement over what lessons, if any, they should take from their debilitating special-election loss in a deep-red district in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Those directly involved in the close contest tried to brush it off as a one-off and not reflective of a damaged brand heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Yet on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers warned that the race was the latest sign of a potentially disastrous midterm election ahead—and that absent a cosmic change in political trajectory, the party would lose its majorities in the House and, potentially, the Senate.
“We’re running into a big headwind. A lot of my Republican colleagues in these marginal or swing districts are well-prepared to protect themselves,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who announced his retirement last year, said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I worry about the members who have never had a run-in with a tough environment like this who think they’re in fairly safe seats. They’ll become very surprised on Election Day.”
If there is some agreement within the GOP ranks that a course-correction is necessary, there is little consensus about what that correction should be. Conservatives on Wednesday argued that the Pennsylvania results underscored the need for the party to press forward aggressively with its legislative agenda in an effort to turn out the GOP base in November.
“If we’re still saying, ‘hey, December tax reform,’ it’s not good. There is a tendency to just put it in neutral and say, ‘everybody just message on what we did last year.’ That’s not going to be good enough. Because we’re going against history,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told The Daily Beast in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “[We need to] make sure that we don’t take our foot off the gas. Especially when it comes to promises that have been laid out over the last two or three years. Many members arrived here running on those promises.”
The GOP’s more moderate voices disagreed, warning that a wave election could subsume Republicans if they continue to rely on President Donald Trump to energize the party’s base.
“I mean, we lost a special election in a twenty-plus Trump district,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a Trump critic who is retiring from the Senate, told The Daily Beast. “We’ve got to appeal to a broader electorate. You can only rile up the base so much. That only gets you so far. And it couldn’t get us over the line in a twenty-plus Trump district.”
On Capitol Hill, this inability to come to an agreement manifested itself in what one congressional GOP aide described as relatively unproductive talks about the lessons that should be drawn from the Pennsylvania election. Another aide noted that those lawmakers not wrapped up in tight contests seemed content to do little to change the party’s trajectory, while those in tough races had “already begun freaking out before this.”
These unresolved tensions left the impression on Wednesday that Republicans won’t make major changes before the midterms—a bit of inaction that could prove costly at a time when the party’s brand appears to be suffering under Trump.
That certainly proved to be the case on Tuesday.
The Pennsylvania contest, which pitted Democrat Conor Lamb against Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, ended with Lamb holding a slim lead despite an investment of more than $10 million from GOP outside groups, a last-minute visit by Trump and gerrymandered district lines intended to keep a Republican in the seat.
Republicans are now considering a request for a recount as Lamb clings to a 627-vote lead. But even if they prove successful—and few, if any, election lawyers seem to think so—the vote could not be described as anything short of a setback. Two years earlier, Trump won the district by nearly 20 points.
Confronted with this defeat, some Republicans dismissed the contest as a fluke that couldn’t be duplicated in all districts, let alone many.
“You had a Democrat running as a Republican-lite,” a national Republican official involved in the race told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, requesting anonymity in order to discuss the race. Speaking about future contests, with crowded primaries, the official charged that Lamb would look like an anomaly compared to other candidates that emerge.
“It forces people to run further and further to the left,” the official said of the primary process. “They can’t have this Conor Lamb type candidate come out of it.”
But those arguments ignored the reality on the ground. Lamb may have shunned items like an assault weapons ban. But he did focus on Democratic priorities, including the preservation of Medicare and Social Security. He also relied on strong union and labor backing. And if the charge is that Lamb was basically a conservative, then it underscores the inefficacy of the Republican ad campaign against him, which relentlessly portrayed Lamb as a lackey for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
“It’s a bullshit argument [that] they’re trying to say this guy is a Republican,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) told The Daily Beast. “He’s an FDR Democrat... This is a guy that has focused on coal miners’ pensions and health care. He talks about the social safety net and compact that we made. This is a solid Democrat.”
Those pleas aside, by the end of the race, Republican groups had begun to air fewer messages touting tax reform and more on Lamb’s record as a prosecutor and Pelosi. It was a strategy that Walker, among others, called short sighted but one that the party seems poised to use again.
“We still see in numbers that Pelosi is still absolutely toxic,” the aforementioned official said.
Democrats may very well welcome the lack of an adjustment. Following Lamb’s win, top officials were expressing more confidence that the party could retake control of the House of Representatives. Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) hit the phones on Wednesday to cajole potential recruits to consider jumping into tough contests, a source with the group told The Daily Beast.
The DCCC also sent an updated retirement watch-list which included new members such as Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), and others such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and—with a bit of a stretch—House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Democratic groups like the DCCC and the Democratic National Committee invested paltry sums in the race compared to their Republican competitors but were quick to hail the victory as a sign of future positive outcomes.
“In the first congressional election of 2018, Democrats picked up right where we left off in 2017 by taking on a fight in one of the reddest districts in the country and winning because of Conor’s enduring optimism, patriotism, and vision of opportunity-for-all in his home state,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez told The Daily Beast in a statement.