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Opinion: Why the Pennsylvania Special Election Is Not So Special

Such contests are more about storylines than winning

Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District between Republican Rick Saccone, left, and Democrat Conor Lamb was too close to call. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District between Republican Rick Saccone, left, and Democrat Conor Lamb was too close to call. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

All elections have consequences, but on a scale of zero-to-life-changing, Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb has fewer real-world consequences than most.

You wouldn’t know it from the screaming national headlines or the colossal amount of cash both parties are putting up to occupy the seat for the next nine months (almost $12 million in ad spending alone), but the reality of special elections this cycle is that they are more about winning a storyline than about winning any House seat.

In reality, the race will not only not change the balance of power in Congress, it won’t even determine who will get a leg up to win the seat this fall. That’s because the district will be entirely redrawn when the primaries for the seat take place two months from now and at least one candidate, Lamb, won’t even live there for a possible rematch.

Tuesday’s election is also taking place with the 115th Congress’ heaviest legislating in the rear view mirror. With midterm primaries already underway, the chances of major bills coming before the House or Senate before November grows smaller by the day. The winner of this contest will most likely be naming post offices and approving suspension bills in between trips home to campaign for re-election.

The race is also not a test for the tariff issue in the Rust Belt, since both candidates support President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on foreign-made steel and aluminum. Nor is it a question of the power of the gun control issue in the wake of the Florida school shooting, because Saccone and Lamb have similar positions there, too.

Watch: Three Things to Watch In Pennsylvania’s Special Election

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Winning the narrative

Instead, the election boils down to a fight for national bragging rights, plain and simple. For Democrats, a win in this district, which Trump carried by 20 points over Hillary Clinton, would represent the leading edge of a blue-wave election that could flip control of one or both chambers in November.

For Republicans, defeating an otherwise strong Democratic candidate in Lamb (cue references to 1. young, 2. Marine veteran, 3. prosecutor) would demonstrate the ongoing strength of the Republican brand in the Trump era. And for Trump, a win would be clear confirmation that the people of southwestern Pennsylvania have absolutely no buyers’ remorse after electing him in 2016 by a wide margin.

“The world is watching. I hate to put this pressure on you, Rick, they’re all watching,” Trump said to Saccone at a campaign rally at the Pittsburgh airport over the weekend. “Because I won this district by, like, 22 points. That’s a lot. That’s why I’m here. Look at all those red hats, Rick.”

Poor Rick. And poor Conor, too, while we’re at it. Because the sheer lunacy of hyping these special elections up to national spectator events has done a disservice to both candidates.

For Lamb, the focus on his campaign and the ensuing national attention has created expectations for him that are almost impossible to meet. That he has even brought the election into striking distance is a success in its own way. But as Jon Ossoff in Georgia knows well, close isn’t good enough in a long-shot special election when the national press has decided you’re going to win.

And for Saccone, a decent-enough candidate who would easily blend into a Congress full of semi-decent campaigners, he has gotten completely trashed in the national media as a “terrible,” “lackluster candidate” with a “charisma deficit.”

Even Trump has reportedly mocked Saccone as weak, when all the guy has done is raise his hand to run for office in a year plenty of other Republicans have taken a pass, specifically because of the man at the top of the ticket.

Future oblivion?

The irony of the five special elections so far this cycle for GOP-held House seats is that as breathlessly as we all waited to see “What It All Means” based on which candidates won, once they were sworn into office, those candidates became nearly invisible as members of Congress.

Since Republican Ron Estes won Mike Pompeo’s seat in Kansas, his main achievement has been introducing a bill to increase penalties for making a fake call to 911 to draw police attention.

In Montana’s at-large district, which Republican Greg Gianforte won last May, the biggest news he’s made has been breaking with Trump last week over the tariff plans. (He also made Roll Call’s list of richest members of Congress.)

Since Karen Handel beat Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th district in June, the Republican has mostly flown under the radar, with the exception of announcing she’d redirected a campaign contribution from Steve Wynn to a nonprofit for battered women after Wynn was accused of sexual misconduct.

Utah GOP Rep. John Curtis, who replaced former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, has mostly been hitting the road for town hall events in his district, while Rep. Ralph Norman, Mick Mulvaney’s GOP successor in South Carolina, only popped up in the news recently when Nikki Haley was reprimanded by the Office of Special Counsel for retweeting a Trump endorsement of Norman before his election. Also, he co-founded the Congressional Solar Caucus.

If there’s any real effect to come from Tuesday’s election, it may be how it makes Republican incumbents feel about their chances in November.

An unlikely loss for Saccone will give pause to incumbents on the fence. A Saccone victory will be filed along with the other five House victories for Republicans with a deep sigh of relief, along with an understanding by everyone involved that the race was closer than it should have been in the first place, and that Trump probably gets the blame for that.

It’s a lot of time, money, and effort to invest in a feeling, but that’s essentially what special elections have become. Tuesday’s contest is no exception.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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