After the botched attempt to invade Cuba ended in disaster at the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy remarked, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” In other words: Everyone wants to take credit for winning, no one for losing. Kennedy’s quip doesn’t apply quite yet to the race for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, which remains too close to call after Tuesday’s special election, but Republicans are already acting as though they have lost the race to Democrat Conor Lamb—and they’re making excuses for it.
In fact, they’ve been making excuses for many days now, as polls showed Lamb leading in a district that Donald Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016. In the days before the election, Republicans “trashed” their party’s candidate, Rick Saccone. Trump privately called him “weak.” Now that Lamb appears the likely victor—he won by fewer than 1,000 votes, within the margin for a recount—Republicans are also rushing to explain why this special election and has no bearing on the upcoming midterms in November.
But if Saccone indeed lost, it’s yet another reason for Republicans to fear the fall elections. The party poured millions of dollars into the race. Saccone embraced the Trump brand in a region where Trump was enormously popular. Trump held two rallies in support of Saccone. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son Donald Trump Jr. also visited the district to bolster Saccone, who described himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.” And Trump’s decision to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, while it might not have been solely motivated to help Saccone, should have played well with industrial blue collar workers who are a key segment of the 18th’s electorate.
But the Republicans, at least publicly, are in deep denial about the significance of this race. Here are their main excuses for Tuesday’s result:
1. Saccone was outspent.
Lamb raised raised $3.9 million, versus Saccone’s $600,000. “Candidates cannot get out-raised 5-to-1 and expect to be competitive in 2018,” a Republican operative told Axios. But those numbers are misleading, as they only represent the money raised by candidates themselves. If outside funding is included, Saccone spent $11.9 million versus Lamb’s $6 million:
2. Saccone was supposed to lose by more.
Republicans have pointed to internal polls showing that they expected Saccone to lose heavily, which means that the actual results (a very narrow Lamb victory) was better than expected:
But losing a district that Trump won by 20 percent, no matter how narrow the loss, is an ominous result for Republicans. As Trump said at a rally for Saccone on Saturday, “This guy should win easily,” and, “This is Trump country.”
3. Conor Lamb is really a conservative.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed Lamb was a “pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative.”
It’s true that Lamb, as one would expect of a Democrat running in a conservative district, leans centrist on many issues. But he is only personally pro-life; legally, he supports reproductive freedom. Further, he ran an ad supporting stronger background checks on gun purchases. And on a raft of issues, Lamb is solidly liberal:
4. Lamb is a “unicorn” and Saccone is porny.
Republicans are contrasting the personal qualities of the candidates, emphasizing Lamb’s youth and charisma versus Saccone’s ... well, facial hair.
“It’s a porn stache,” a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist told the Washington Examiner. “He should have lost the mustache.”
Lamb, meanwhile, was a “unicorn,” according to House Republican leaders who met Wednesday in a closed-door meeting: a handsome and energetic 33-year-old Marine veteran who is frequently described as “straight from central casting.”
This argument has a small grain of truth, in that Lamb is undoubtedly a more appealing figure than the 60-year-old Saccone. But this is no accident; it’s directly connected to the larger political environment. Democrats are surging thanks to Trump, thereby attracting better candidates, while Republicans are struggling to field talent ahead of an expected Democratic wave.
The Democrats can’t run candidates like Lamb everywhere (since he’s more centrist than than the party norm) and expect to win, but they’re having no trouble finding candidates who match Lamb’s profile to run in districts Trump won. As Jonathan Chait notes in New York magazine, “there are a lot of Conor Lambs out there. Very early in the election cycle, Democrats recruited candidates with nontraditional backgrounds, especially in the military, who would appeal to voters in red districts.”
5. The 18th is really a Democratic district.
Even before Tuesday’s election, Republicans were lowering expectations in more brazen ways:
It’s true that the district has more registered Democrats than Republicans, but as Vox reports, “The Cook Political Report rates the district R+11, due in part to partisan gerrymandering that the state Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional. Political analysts in the state agreed that the district’s gerrymandering was part of the reason it was supposed to be impossible for Democrats to win. This is a seat that used to be so solidly Republican Democrats didn’t even bother competing in it.”
Since the 2016 election, if you count Lamb in the winning column, Democrats have flipped 43 Republicans seats in Congress and all state legislatures, compared to just four Democratic seats that Republicans have flipped. The significance of that disparity is hard to deny, but only the rare Republican official—such as Pennsylvania Congressman Charlie Dent—is willing to acknowledge so publicly.
Privately, though, is another matter. “This is a wake-up call,” Congressman Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told GOP leaders during Wednesday’s closed-door meeting. “Prepare to bear down.” Even Paul Ryan, in that same meeting, admitted as much. But what they don’t seem to realize—or at least won’t say out loud, not even privately—is that there is no waking from this electoral nightmare as long as Trump is president.