The warning was as serious as he could muster.
Rep. Steve Stivers, the Ohioan tasked with running House Republicans’ official campaign committee, stood in front of his colleagues at a GOP summit on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning and did a political version of those “Scared Straight” videos. The night before, the Republican nominee in a conservative corner of Pennsylvania struggled to keep pace with his Democratic rival in a special election despite eight-figures’ worth of outside cash to help him out.
“This is a wake up call. Wake up,” Stivers told colleagues, according to two GOP officials who attended the meeting at the private Capitol Hill Club.
President Donald Trump had carried the district in 2016 by a whopping 20 percentage points in the Pittsburgh suburbs where coal miners still dream of going back underground. Now? It looked like Democrats had flipped the seat in their favor, less than two years after they didn’t even bother to nominate someone.
Incumbent Republicans nodded along, a bit sheepish that many hadn’t taken Stivers’ previous admonishments seriously enough. Advisers to House Speaker Paul Ryan have been sounding the alarm for months about the status of the GOP caucus. Many incumbents are trailing their Democratic challengers in fundraising. Some hadn’t yet hired campaign staff. More than a few were trying to keep the election at bay as long as they could and hadn’t settled on teams for polling, digital ads or mail. “Apparently it is a shock that November follows October follows September and on with these guys,” snarked a third Republican with close ties to the Speaker’s Office.
Stivers, a popular but serious member of the GOP Leadership, wanted to make sure his colleagues knew the Republican majority rested on every one of their re-election bids. Nothing taking place on this block of Washington, where the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee call home, can outweigh a neglected campaign.
“Bear down,” Stivers growled.
Message received. Maybe.
As much as Republicans were starting to freak out — and Democrats were celebrating — it’s worth pushing pause to consider what, exactly, the Pennsylvania district means to the GOP struggle to hold the majority. Yes, Conor Lamb ran a better-than-expected candidate and seems likely to become the newest member of the Democratic caucus. No, Rick Saccone’s campaign performances were not terrific, and perhaps he put too much confidence in his ability to replicate the Trump mojo.
But the bigger fight in 2018 is unlikely to be a carbon copy of what narrowly happened in Appalachia for a number of reasons. For one, Democrats avoided a messy primary fight in picking Lamb, a Marine veteran who secured the nomination by winning over 319 Democrats’ backing in a high school gym filled with 554 activists back in November. In other scenarios, an energized activist base on the Left — populated by newcomers to the process who demand ideological purity — may have prevented Lamb from winning the nomination had there been a real contest. In recent weeks, more than a few progressive activists grumbled that whether Lamb won or lost, another white male who wasn’t a full-throated supporter of abortion rights would represent the district. (Lamb said he supported abortion rights but was personally opposed to the legal procedure, a stance that matches Democrats’ 2016 VP nominee Tim Kaine. Republicans called Lamb’s position “pro-life-ish.”)
At the same time, Lamb steadfastly avoided nationalizing the race and brushed off most questions about Trump. While liberals are largely united in their disdain of the President, Lamb gamely avoided moving him to center stage. Many of the loudest voices on the Left have tried to cast 2018 as a referendum on Republicans’ national agenda. Instead, Lamb kept the focus at home and talked about policy areas that matched the voters.
Democrats have acknowledged their problems with recruiting the right candidates. For every Lamb victory, there are at least as many idealists who fire up online activists and donors — only to fall in defeat when their progressive ideas are rejected by the voters who actually matter.
Former Congressman Rahm Emanuel — now the Mayor of Chicago — was the master at this when he ran the Democrats’ campaign committee in 2006. He sought out candidates who were tailored to the districts, even if they were afield from party orthodoxy on issues such as guns, abortion and unions. Democrats netted 30 seats that year, enough to elevate Nancy Pelosi to the House Speaker role. The price to pay was a caucus with moderates known as Blue Dogs. (Most of them are now gone.)
But the Emanuel approach is not in favor among the activists who are demanding purity. Need proof? The California Democratic Party declined to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bid for a sixth term because she’s seen as too centrist. She is likely to face another Democrat, state Senate President Kevin de León, in a head-to-head race this November.
The spin coming from both sides betrayed an uncertainty for what comes next. Ryan, who stands to lose his gavel as Speaker if the Republicans don’t build a stronger firewall against a Democratic wave, told reporters on Wednesday that Lamb was basically a conservative, and real Republican candidates will fare just fine this fall.
But in private, Ryan was reviewing campaign finance reports for his most-endangered colleagues in an effort to goose them to action. His strategists were telling incumbents to focus on the benefits on the Republican-led tax cuts — opposed by every House Democrat — and not the charisma of the President who signed them into law. And, given the reality check they watched on Tuesday, Republicans were scheduling time to phone donors with a warning that the GOP majority was in peril.
Across the aisle, Democrats predicted a wave of GOP retirement announcements in districts seen as less Republican-leaning than Lamb’s was seen and crowed about their recruits. “There are more than 60 candidates running for Congress in our targeted battlefield who are veterans, national security experts, CIA officers, job-creators and trusted elected leaders,” House Democrats’ committee wrote in a post-election memo that doubled as fundraising message.
Democrats had a good night. Their message broke through to voters, including many who had voted for Trump but now returned to their tribal home as Democratic voters. They showed the roughly $10 million in national conservative cash was not impenetrable armor.
But the convergence of luck and wisdom that unfolded in Pennsylvania’s southwest corner isn’t a given in other districts. And, for that reason, Democrats would be wise to keep their cockiness in check. After all, there are 237 days before the general election and, if the current political climate has taught us anything, it is that conditions change quickly and dramatically.
Just ask the pro-Trump voters south of Pittsburgh who cast ballots for Lamb.