When Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election, Democrats were shocked and horrified. The home state of Pittsburgh and Philly, long known as labor strongholds, had switched from blue to red. Immediately, Democrats began planning their comeback. A smattering of special elections between Trump’s inauguration and the midterm election this November have been watched intensely to see if Trump’s base will hold…or if significant numbers of voters have been turned off by the President’s unconventional and periodically irrational methods.
Though the GOP managed to keep many of their special election seats, the upset loss of Republican nominee Roy Moore for Jeff Session’s old Alabama Senate seat was a warning shot across Trump’s bow. Moore, a controversial right-winger who fit the outspoken Trump mold, was too radical for Southern voters, allowing Doug Jones to become the first Democrat elected to statewide office in Alabama in more than a decade. Trump quickly downplayed the loss, immediately reminding everyone that [under the advice of moderate Republicans in Congress] he had initially supported moderate Republican Luther Strange against Roy Moore in the primaries.
But, after Moore had clinched the senatorial nomination, Trump jumped in with both feet and campaigned in support of a candidate even more radical than himself. Moore’s unexpected loss revealed that Trump’s open support was not enough to rally voters. And now, it may be happening again in western Pennsylvania. In a district won by Trump in 2016 by twenty points, Republican House nominee Rick Saccone is struggling. National Republicans are rushing in to assist, but it may not be enough: Charismatic Democratic nominee Conor Lamb has outraised Saccone five-to-one in political donations.
Unlike Moore, who was a controversial firebrand, Rick Saccone has been heavily criticized for being uncharismatic. Lamb, in contrast, has Democrats swooning. The well mannered and appealing young politician is an Ivy League graduate and decorated military veteran, drawing comparisons to the Kennedys of old. Although Trump is actively trying to swing a win for Saccone, polls now show that Lamb is in the lead. Democrats are fired up, even scoring fundraising upsets in conservative strongholds like Texas, where Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke outraised Republican incumbent Ted Cruz during the last quarter of 2017.
Donald Trump’s continued struggles as President may be dampening Republican support in the midterms. His usual rants against Democrats are unlikely to bring many moderates and independents closer to the GOP, and his uncouth flip-flops on issues like trade and gun control may be exasperating current allies. In a recent Pennsylvania rally to endorse Saccone, Trump also raised eyebrows by mocking the concept of appearing presidential, insisting that nobody wanted him to act “stiff.” Instead of extolling the virtues of voting Republican and supporting Rick Saccone, the President made the rally mostly about himself in an unscripted Trump manner.
With the President seemingly unable to control his behavior and rally conservatives to support congressional candidates, the midterms are likely to be tough on the GOP. If Conor Lamb wins an upset in a Trump-supporting district, the Democratic Party will enter the midterms with strong momentum, preying on the growing belief that Trump cannot maintain his base. Even if the Democrat Conor Lamb loses, it will still be a remarkable change in public opinion for him to have been so close to beating the Republican in a place the President won by twenty points.
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