In an ordinary year it would seem slightly crazy to be making a big fuss about a special congressional election in a district that won’t even exist in eight months.
But this is no ordinary year because Trump is no ordinary president. As a nation some of us have been appalled, some of us have been delighted and all of us have been mesmerized and left wondering—is he really getting away with this presidency?
So far the answer is no. Or, not exactly.
Last night a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district turned into a virtual tie (with a small edge for the Democrat) that is likely to be settled only once the remaining absentee ballots are counted. The race to fill the seat vacated by Republican Congressman Tim Murphy, a Republican who resigned when it became public that he’d asked his mistress to have an abortion, has become one of the clearest tests this year of how Trump voters were feeling about Trump. The district includes the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh as well as rural counties, coal mines and energy companies. The electorate is older and whiter than many other parts of the state. In 2016 the district went for Trump by 20 points.
A young former Marine named Conor Lamb, a Democrat, took on State Representative Rick Saccone who wrapped himself in the Trump mantle. Republicans poured millions into the race and Trump himself followed a long line of important Republicans going to Pennsylvania to campaign for Saccone. On the Democratic side former Vice President Joe Biden was one of many Democrats campaigning for Lamb. It is believed that Trump’s surprise decision to impose tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum was a last-minute effort to win the district.
Trump wrapped himself around Saccone and vice-versa. In the waning days of the campaign Saccone even seemed to be channeling Trump’s tendency for somewhat whacky and hyperbolic statements, saying about his opponents “…my wife and I saw it again today. They have a hatred for God. It’s amazing. You see it in talking to them.”
No matter who wins this nailbiter of a race, it will become one more tea leaf in the emerging story of what may happen in November and what may happen to Trump. In this year’s special elections for Congress Republicans have held onto safe Republican seats but they have seen their margins shrink by around eight percentage points on average. Democrats took the Alabama Senate seat that Jeff Sessions vacated to become Attorney General for the first time since 1995. And while Democrats couldn’t read much into the Alabama Senate victory (since everyone knew they wouldn’t be so lucky as to run against accused child molesters in other states,) they could point to Virginia. There, a Democrat, Ralph Northam, won a solid victory for Governor against a perfectly respectable Republican. The good news for Democrats goes right down to the statehouse level. Since 2016 there have been 17 special elections at the state legislative level that have flipped parties—three went from Democratic to Republican and 14 went from Republican to Democratic.
This election will reverberate throughout the political world. When an election year looks bad for one party or the other, incumbents of the party in trouble suddenly discover that retirement or other opportunities look like more fun. So far in this cycle Republican retirements (38) are more than twice the number of Democratic retirements (15) and, as the following graph shows they are at an all-time high.
And that’s why attention paid to this crazy race in a congressional district that is about to disappear is not so crazy after all.