In the final weeks of the special election in Pennsylvania, Republicans anxious about defeat in a pro-Trump district argued that their own nominee was uniquely flawed while the Democrat was a once-in-a-cycle dream candidate. The Election Night result, they suggested, would be irrelevant beyond the borders of the 18th congressional district.
But as both parties watched results yield a virtual tie on Tuesday night, the reality is that a district Donald Trump won by big margins shares similar fundamentals with close to a dozen other contests around the country — including those in deep-red seats that Republican officials now warn could also be vulnerable despite their heavy rightward tilt.
And that's not even counting the many other races playing out in more traditionally competitive territory.
"Regardless of the final results, this is a very challenging environment for Republicans," said Corry Bliss, the executive director of the House leadership-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC. "We need serious candidates to run serious campaigns in order to be successful this November."
On Tuesday evening, Democrat Conor Lamb—a young former federal prosecutor and a Marine—was locked in a race too close to call against Republican Rick Saccone, a state representative who also served in the military. But Republicans, who had been talking up a sizable loss all day, aren't breathing too deep a sigh of relief. In interviews, operatives said that this never should have been a competitive race in the first place--and the fact that it was is an ominous sign for Republicans running in similar districts, not to mention more moderate ones.
"It shouldn't even be a close race...it is a safe, 20-point Republican seat," said Terry Sullivan, who served as Marco Rubio's presidential campaign manager, in an interview ahead of Election Night. "The fact that anybody's even covering it the day before the election tells you there's something going wrong for Republicans."
Similar tensions could play out from Rep. Robert Pittenger’s Charlotte-area seat to Rep. Mike Bost’s district in southern Illinois--other districts that Trump won comfortably, but where top Democratic recruits are running now, just like in Pennsylvania. That universe expands further when including more clearly competitive districts that Trump narrowly won or lost in 2016, where credible Democratic candidates are on the ballot.
“The most unique thing about it is how much more Republican the district is than the battleground is in 2018,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and veteran of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He went on to add, "This district shouldn't have become competitive to begin with, and they shouldn't have had to rescue it with millions of dollars from Washington, but even after that, they still couldn't bring home a convincing win because voters are just not that into them."
Democrats acknowledge that Lamb is a good candidate who ran a smart race, focusing on economic issues that resonate in a conservative district. A supporter of abortion rights, he was able to walk a tightrope between channeling progressive energy—and money—while still reaching out to conservative leaning-voters who backed Trump in 2016.
Lamb also collected an incredible amount of cash, outraising Saccone by a nearly five-to-one ratio to start the year, and said he would support someone other than Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader -- a position few other Democrats have been willing to take.
But Democratic officials reject the notion that the type of candidate with Lamb’s background and campaign will be an outlier this year, pointing to a handful of candidates similar in profile to Lamb who are also running in deep-red seats.
"From a practical perspective, if we lose this district by one percent or win this district by one percent, it doesn’t make one bit of a difference," said Ethan Todras-Whitehill, executive director of Swing Left, a progressive group trying to help Democrats win the House in 2018 . "Both of those things are huge sign of a wave."
Meanwhile, as Election Day unfolded, Republicans sounded increasingly glum about the race, with some pinning blame for how close it was on Saccone, and others acknowledging that candidate dynamics alone couldn’t explain the impending loss.
"Everything Democrats will be saying after this-- 'Oh, we got so close, that's the real story'...all of it's true," said a GOP strategist working on midterms races. "Aside from a shocking 10-point [Saccone] victory--and it shouldn't be shocking--Republicans absolutely should not take anything away from this race other than, we've got to get our act together."
Bliss agreed that the close results needed to be taken seriously by Republican candidates.
“This needs to be a wake-up call," he said. "Everything you did before, you need to do better this time. The environment is tough."
In another sign of progressive energy, Democratic officials point to races in places such as Ohio’s 7th District or North Carolina’s 9th District, where Democratic challengers have outraised GOP incumbents Bob Gibbs and Pittenger in recent fundraising cycles despite the heavy Republican lean of both seats. In California’s 4th District – another area that went heavily for Trump – Republican Rep. Thomas McClintock actually had less money on hand than one of his Democratic challengers, Jessica Morse.
Democrats also point out that, in some cases, Republican incumbents are also lawmakers who haven’t run a competitive race in years, raising questions about their ability to pull together a strong, modern campaign against fierce opposition.
“My hope is people start to see even in tough districts based on 2016, if you have a compelling candidate who runs a good campaign, you could very well see some upsets,” Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said.
Certainly, some national Republicans caution against reading too much into the results of the special election and how close it was. Lamb skated through without a primary to worry about or a voting record to defend—which won’t be luxuries for many other Democrats running, especially those competing in crowded primaries where the progressive base is pushing the field to the left.
And while Saccone struggled with fundraising and telling a compelling story, seasoned incumbents, who are up in some of the country’s most competitive districts, should know better and have had more time to get their campaigns in shape.
“This race took on national implications, a lot of our incumbents have been involved in nationally observed races before, they know they have to raise money, there will be scrutiny, there will be media attention,” said one national Republican involved in the race who wasn’t authorized to discuss the contest on the record in an interview Tuesday. But, the source continued, “Rick Saccone is a cautionary tale for every Republican in 2018. If you do not raise money, if you do not hire a good campaign team, if you do not take your challenger seriously, if you do not have resources or tools to communicate a message, you’re going to get left in the dust.”