Legislatively speaking, Tuesday’s special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district was much ado about nothing.
The seat will vanish in January due to redistricting. One seat, in a body of 435 members of Congress, is a rounding error.
But that does not mean the seat does not matter.
All told, Republicans and their aligned outside groups, spent more than $10 million in a failed attempt to rescue Republican nominee Rick Saccone.
It must be pointed out that the Trump political operation came in late and helped narrow the deficit, with the ultimate margin of victory below half a percent.
National reporters are looking for clear takeaways from this special election. They want to extrapolate from it with declarations about November’s crucial midterms. But the reality is far more complicated.
Special elections are special.
They happen on one day, in one place, have low turnout, and have specific candidates with their own advantages and disadvantages. This was true last year when Republicans held every Congressional seat that was up, only losing a highly unusual special election for Senate in Alabama due to Steve Bannon’s incompetence.
PA-18 was particularly unusual.
It was a suburban district. It was a heavily unionized district. The Democratic candidate, retired Marine Conor Lamb, was chosen in a convention and did not have to survive a Democratic primary. Mr. Lamb ran as a moderate, espousing pro-gun and personally pro-life views, while committing to oppose Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. The Republican candidate, a local State Representative, ran an uninspired campaign and failed to successfully raise money. These dynamics do not exist anywhere else in the country.
PA-18 is a district Mr. Trump won by 20 points. In the 2016 presidential election, PA-18 saw 293,000 votes cast. In the special election, around 220,000 votes were cast.
Local Democrats cared more about this seat than Republicans did. Democrats wanted to continue building toward a blue wave nationally this November, after failing to take back open House seats last year, especially in a hotly contested race in Georgia.
As unique as the PA-18 race was, there are significant warning signs for the GOP.
To boil it down, Democrats have two specific advantages right now: enthusiasm and suburban energy.
Throughout the Trump presidency, Democrats have increase their margins everywhere there has been a special election.
Those margins have been driven by higher Democratic base turnout and higher margins in suburbs.
Suburban strength was evidenced in PA-18 on Tuesday, and last year in local legislative races in Georgia and Wisconsin and in the Virginia statewide election, as well as in other races around the country.
MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki coined the term, “Revenge of the Suburbs,” on election night in Virginia in November. Highly educated, diverse areas are disproportionately negative about Mr. Trump and enthusiastic to vote against him. This can threaten scores of incumbent Republicans in suburban districts in 2018.
What do Republicans do?
Panic is not a strategy.
Preventing another wave of retirements is job No. 1. Retirements open new seats up to competition, introduce unknown variables into races, and cost party committees millions of dollars they were not planning to spend.
Advancing a big, bold legislative agenda this election year is now clearly necessary. It will simply not be enough to sit back and hope the increasingly popular tax law will save their majority.
Every incumbent needs to run as though they are vulnerable. Everyone needs to be aggressively raising money, if not for themselves, then for their colleagues.
Losing the House majority would be a disaster for the conservative movement and a political earthquake for the White House, which would immediately be dealing with debilitating congressional investigations and the political dilemma of impeachment.
I believe the House majority can be saved, but absent a change in course Democrats will likely take control.
PA-18 can be a wake-up call or it can be a canary in the coal mine.
It’s entirely up to House Republicans.
Matt Mackowiak is the Travis County GOP chairman and president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.