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In steel country, rumblings of a political earthquake: Dems poised to win again

Last Updated Mar 14, 2018 at 4:20 pm EDT

Democrat Connor Lamb, right, and Republican Rick Saccone speak before the taping of their first debate in the special election in the Pennsylvania 18th Congressional District at the KDKA TV studios in Pittsburgh, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Keith Srakocic

WASHINGTON – Deep in the rust belt, in a Trump-loving district where Democrats were clobbered by 28 percentage points the last time they bothered running a candidate, there are sudden rumblings of a potential political earthquake.

Democrats appear to have won a squeaker of a congressional race outside Pittsburgh, pending a possible recount. This despite President Donald Trump promoting tariffs on steel and aluminum and campaigning and having his son campaign in a district he dominated in 2016.

The dramatic shift in Pennsylvania’s 18th district is the latest in a series of performances now stirring Democrats’ hopes of a November midterm rout that might help them reconquer Congress.

Before the results were known, a Democratic strategist said even a close race would be stunning.

“If it’s close or (we win) it’s a shocker,” Joe Trippi said in an interview Tuesday.

“Assuming it’s close, it already spells a lot of problems for the Republicans. This is a district Trump won by 20 points. … If it’s close it really spells a big flaw with Republicans that are losing support right now.”

Trippi knows something about election shockers. He organized the Democrats’ successful Senate campaign in Alabama last year. He believes Democrats can regain the House of Representatives this fall with a seven- or eight-point swing from 2016 results.

Democrats have been doing far better than that in recent races. Statistics compiled by The Canadian Press show roughly 120 Republican-held districts where Democrats came closer in 2016 congressional races than in Pennsylvania’s 18th, the last time they tried competing there several elections ago.

The party only needs about two dozen seats to reclaim the House of Representatives. And if Democrats do wrest that chamber away, that gives them power to block Republican bills, gain control of congressional committees and hold public hearings to investigate the Trump administration.

That’s why Trippi was merely looking for a close result in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. But it appeared that a 33-year-old former Marine, Conor Lamb, might do better than that for the Democrats: with almost all the ballots counted, he held a wafer-thin lead and declared himself the winner.

Republicans spun the result as a fluke.

After all, the seat was vacated by a Republican embroiled in controversy. Anti-abortion lawmaker Tim Murphy, who had piled up lopsided election wins or run unopposed over the last decade, recently resigned amid news he had encouraged a lover to have an abortion.

Republicans also noted that Lamb ran as an extremely centrist Democrat; he avoided criticizing Trump and his platform stuck to bread-and-butter issues like infrastructure, job training and health care.

House Speaker Paul Ryan downplayed the damage — he opined that Democrats will nominate more radical candidates later this year. He noted that Lamb managed to bypass the primary process, and was appointed because it was a byelection.

“Both of these candidates ran as conservatives. I just don’t think you’re going to see that across the country,” Ryan said.

In fact, Lamb’s positions on health care, gun background checks, safety-net spending, labour rights and abortion choice did skew Democrat.

A Democratic campaign arm mocked the Republican leader — tweeting at Ryan: “Hi … your own district is almost twice as competitive as #PA18. You may be in the state of denial, but our sights are set on (your) state.”

Trippi says it’s natural for Democrats to run as centrists in difficult districts.

It’s the way his candidate Doug Jones ran successfully in Alabama’s Senate race — sticking to the issues, being civil with Republicans, vowing to work across the aisle. As long as elections are bitterly partisan, Trippi says, voters will revert to their natural political tribes; and in places where Republicans outnumber their rivals, he says, that means they wind up with the most votes.

The key is to de-tribalize such races, Trippi says.

“If everyone moves toward their own tribe then in a place like Alabama — where there’s more Republicans than Democrats — you can’t win,” he said.

“Trump is excellent, incredible, the best, at driving people toward their tribe. Either into the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe. Whatever hot button he’s pushing, he drives people into their corners. That works for them in a place that he won by 20 points… Attacking Trump relentlessly — it may make your supporters feel better. It may even energize them. But it doesn’t help you reach across.”

He said Lamb took that approach and on Tuesday, it appeared to have paid off.

Election analyst David Byler, wrote Wednesday that there’s no way to spin these results positively for Republicans.

“(This) race isn’t a fluke or an outlier,” Byler wrote for The Weekly Standard.

“Democrats are the favorites to retake the House and this election was another indicator of how much Trump is hurting Republican candidates.”