Republicans running out of excuses for losing: Lessons from Conor Lamb’s victory

When you run against a handsome candidate (holding a baby lamb, yet) you’re bound to lose. At least according to GOP reasoning.

Not to rub it in, but it must totally suck to be a Republican candidate these days.

Democrat Conor Lamb squeezed out a narrow victory in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Donald Trump won by 20 points. In 2014 and 2016, Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate against the Republican incumbent, Rep. Tim Murphy, who had held the seat since 2003. Except the staunch anti-abortion congressman had to resign when he was caught suggesting in text messages to his lover that she get an abortion.

The district had been rated R+11 by the Cook Political Report. Republicans and outside groups poured a gusher of money into the race between Lamb and GOP State Rep. Rick Saccone—about $10.7 million on the GOP side from outside groups, compared with $2.6 million on the Democratic side. But as the Beatles sang, “Money can’t buy me love.”

Even though Saccone still hasn’t conceded, the rest of his party knows that the loss is a disaster, even if the preferred term is “wake-up call.” The GOP tried to spin the loss of this congressional seat in more ways than a field full of wind turbines in a tornado, but they just looked dumber and dumber.

The nitwits on Fox & Friends chalked up Lamb’s victory to his good looks: “Absolutely, cuteness counts,” said co-host Brian Kilmeade. Here was the take from ThinkProgress:

Rather than contemplate that Trump’s popularity has sagged or that Saccone’s conservative policy proposals did not win votes, perhaps it was easier to blame the outcome on the dashing good looks of the 33-year-old Democrat trumping those of the 60-year-old Republican — though it is worth noting that septuagenarian Donald Trump beat out more than a dozen younger candidates in his 2016 run.

And speaking of looks: Possibly the most innovative excuse came from a GOP strategist who chose to remain anonymous (wouldn’t you?) in this comment to The Washington Examiner when he blamed it all on Saccone’s mustache. ″It’s a porn stache,” the strategist said. Hey, if my party’s president was embroiled in a scandal with adult film star Stormy Daniels, I wouldn’t bring up anything with the word “porn” in it. Just sayin’.

Many in the GOP blamed the candidate himself for running a “lackluster campaign.” From a story on Huffington Post:

“This may not be nice to say: The fact is that the Saccone campaign was a joke. If we had a candidate who could walk and chew gum at the same time, we would have [easily] won the race,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, in a statement.

Ever think it might be something else, GOP? Like your policies are unpopular, your incumbents look weak and scared when they run away from their own constituents, your president’s approval numbers are circling the drain, and you’re ignoring the will of the American people on issues like DACA, health care, and gun violence?

Before the election, Saccone and the Republicans tried to paint Lamb, a center-left Democrat, as a flaming liberal. GOP ads touting their big tax scam bill had no effect, so they went after Lamb personally: He was weak on crime and was hit with everything else in the usual GOP playbook, including the culture wars. He was “Nancy Pelosi’s little Lamb.” Obviously, when all else fails, bring up Nancy Pelosi.

Saccone himself minced no words. “The other side,” he said, “… has a hatred for our president … for our country. I’ll tell you some more, my wife and I saw it again today. They have a hatred for God.”

Yet after Lamb won, the GOP claimed that the guy who had a hatred for God (Lamb is a devout Catholic, BTW) secretly ran as a Republican all along, or at least as a conservative Democrat. That’s quite a conversion in 24 hours.

Not so fast, Lyin’ Ryan.

Probably the most ridiculous excuse came from Trump himself. The weekend before the election, Trump spent an hour at a Saccone rally either insulting people or bragging about himself to his red-meat base, predicting that Saccone would win easily. After the loss, during a private fundraiser in Missouri for GOP Senate candidate Josh Hawley, Trump said the only reason Lamb won was because … he was like Trump. According to an audio recording from the fundraiser sent to The Atlantic:

“The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis,” Trump said. “He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, ‘Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.’ ”

Spoiler alert: Lamb never said any of those things. Seeing how Trump seems to get policy ideas and talking points from Fox & Friends, I’m surprised he didn’t mention Lamb’s looks, too. Other claims from Trump officials that Lamb “really embraced Trump’s policies and positions” are just as laughable. Said an analysis on CNN:

Instead of blaming Saccone or crediting Lamb, it makes far more sense to consider that the President’s performance in office was the key factor in Pennsylvania. Having purchased what Trump was selling once, Americans have been carefully assessing what their votes bought.

You can use whatever cliches you want: The winds have changed, the tide has turned, the handwriting is on the wall. But there’s a definite blue wave at work. The Pennsylvania race might be the first House seat that flipped, but Democrats have flipped 39 seats from red to blue in state races since Trump took office. The Cook Political Report keeps changing its ratings, making House races more and more favorable for Democrats. Currently, the score is that only three districts with a Democrat in office are rated as toss-ups, while 27 GOP seats are toss-ups. There are actually more solid Democratic seats (175) than Republican seats (167). The generic congressional ballot polling on midterm elections keeps favoring Democrats, although the percentage point difference grows and shrinks.

The latest entry from Sabato’s Crystal Ball, another election soothsayer, points out that recent House special elections all featured “pronounced swings” against Republicans, and there are two more tests coming up.

As things stand, two other congressional districts will have special elections before the 2018 midterm election: AZ-8 on April 24 and OH-12 on Aug. 7. Based on the 2016 election, the presidential lean of the two districts favors Republicans — R +24.5 in AZ-8 and R +14.1 in OH-12. However, if the swings in those contests follow the average swing during the Trump era (D +13.7), they will be competitive races. This is particularly true of OH-12, which would see its Republican lean essentially neutralized by the average swing in congressional contests. The PA-18 result should scare Republicans, but if the GOP loses OH-12 just three months before the midterm election, those fears will grow exponentially.

Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight sees a huge enthusiasm gap between voters in the two parties. He claims that a Democratic wave could become a tsunami, mostly because of high voter turnout in traditionally blue areas.

Republicans have one less excuse for their string of really awful special election performances. It’s true that other measures aren’t as bad for Republicans as these special elections — for instance, they trail Democrats by “only” 8 or 9 percentage points on the generic congressional ballot, which suggests a close race for control of the House this year that only narrowly favors Democrats. By contrast, the 16- or 17-point average Democratic overperformance in special elections so far suggests a Democratic mega-tsunami. …

There were signs of an enthusiasm gap even within Pennsylvania 18 on Tuesday night. According to the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, turnout in Democratic-leaning Allegheny County equaled 67 percent of presidential-year turnout, but voters turned out at only 60 percent of presidential levels in Republican-leaning Westmoreland County. That sort of turnout gap suggests that registered-voter polls could be underrating Democrats in this year’s midterms — and could turn a challenging year for Republicans into a catastrophic one.

We need to take all of this with shakers full of salt until it’s time to vote in the fall—especially in the Senate, with 26 Democratic incumbents facing re-election, some in tough races. Still, candidates with a “D” after their names can see the enthusiasm, while many in the “R” column must be sweating bullets. Combine that with the huge number of women candidates (Emily’s List now says the number of candidates seeking assistance has reached an unheard-of 34,000), the newly registered 18-year-olds who are focusing like lasers on gun violence, Trump’s miserable approval ratings, and the continuing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, and you just might have that big blue wave after all.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on March 18, 2018.

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