Republicans on Wednesday struggled to explain their likely loss in the Pennsylvania special election: GOP leaders warned lawmakers that the outcome in the pro-Trump district could spell disaster in the midterms if they don’t respond forcefully, but many lawmakers dismissed the race as an anomaly and seemed to be in denial.
During a closed-door conference meeting at the Capitol Hill Club, House Republican leaders said that Tuesday’s special election, where Democrat Conor Lamb is narrowly leading, could portend a monster Democratic year. They told rank-and-file members in no uncertain terms that they needed to get their campaigns in order or that they could be casualties, and they need to raise money now to protect themselves come November.
“Prepare to bear down,” warned National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who kicked off the huddle by calling the race “a wake-up call,” said one person in attendance.
But most rank-and-file going in and out of the meeting downplayed the election, suggesting Republican candidate Rick Saccone was weak and Lamb was a “unicorn” who couldn’t be replicated in tight races this fall.
“We’ve won five [House special elections]; they’ve won one. I’m feeling pretty good,” said New York Rep. Chris Collins, a close ally of President Donald Trump.
The conflicting takeaways come as Lamb claimed victory and Republicans have hinted they will seek a recount. President Donald Trump carried the blue-collar, Pittsburgh-area by 20 points in 2016. And the party has held the district for well over a decade.
GOP leaders tried to use the likely loss to motivate their incumbents, more than 40 of whom were outraised by Democratic opponents last quarter.
Appearing before the conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the contest was evidence that members needed to up their fundraising game and warned them not to get caught off guard in November. Ryan acknowledged that Republicans should have won the district, and that Democrats’ enthusiasm was “real.”
Stivers told Republicans they needed to run a real race “if you have 50 percent suburban voters.”
But even GOP leaders put a positive spin on the election. Ryan argued at a news conference later Wednesday that facets of the race wouldn’t extend to other competitive seats. He noted that Lamb ran on a conservative platform, highlighting his opposition to Nancy Pelosi, and that other Democrats wouldn’t have that luxury because they need to appeal to the base in primaries. Lamb did not have a primary opponent.
“You will have primaries in these other races and the primaries bring them to the left,” Ryan said. “I just don’t think this is something you’ll see a repeat of. ”
Stivers, likewise, noted to the conference that Lamb out-spent and out-raised Saccone five-to-one. However, outside Republican groups spent more than $10 million trying to save the seat, compared to roughly $2 million by Democratic groups.
Republican members latched onto those talking points. Vulnerable Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Leonard Lance of New Jersey both argued that the special election results meant little to their districts and did not necessarily foreshadow a Democratic wave.
Even former NRCC chairman Greg Walden seemed torn about how to read the race, saying Republicans “know we got to go work” but also arguing Lamb was a candidate Democrats couldn’t “replicate.”
“The reason they call them special elections is because they’re special and I wouldn’t read much into it,” he said. “If you go back and look at special elections over time they generally don’t predict what’s going to happen in the next election.”
At one point, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) got testy with reporters who peppered him with questions about what the race meant for the midterms. Kelly tried to argue that Lamb “ran as a guy who would line himself up with President Trump.” When a reporter retorted that that was not exactly true, Kelly said sarcastically, “Sorry, I didn’t answer it the way you want it.”
Other GOP strategists, however, say it’s time for some soul-searching. Corry Bliss, who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which is aligned with Ryan, said the party needs to reckon with what happened in Pennsylvania.
“This is a tough environment for Republicans,” Bliss said of the national mood. “Republicans can win if we have good candidates who raise money and run strong campaigns. It’s not nice to say, but the Saccone campaign was a joke, and if we simply had a candidate who can walk and chew gum at the same time we would have easily won.”