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Republicans Downplay Pennsylvania Race, But Note Tough Road Ahead

GOP huddled Wednesday to discuss the special election

Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairs the NRCC and addressed the conference Wednesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairs the NRCC and addressed the conference Wednesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans downplayed Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania, where a Democrat is poised to win in a solidly GOP district. But it’s another reminder of the tough midterm election cycle ahead, they said.

The race in Pennsylvania’s 18th District had still not been called late Wednesday morning. Democrat Conor Lamb currently leads GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone by 627 votes in a district President Donald Trump carried by 20 points in 2016. Republicans were bracing for a loss in the final days of the race and were already placing blame on Saccone’s lackluster fundraising.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers addressed GOP lawmakers in their regularly scheduled conference meeting Wednesday morning and discussed the election, saying Republicans needed to make sure they were ready for a fight.

“He said it’s a bit of a wakeup call,” Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said when asked about Ryan’s message. “I think you can’t deny that and if you do you’re lying … He made the point that I just made that you can’t be outspent five to one by your opponent.”

Watch: Democrats’ Success in Pennsylvania 18 Not Repeatable, Ryan Says

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According to a source familiar with the message sent to Republicans at the meeting, leaders also encouraged lawmakers to be sure to define themselves, arguing Saccone’s experience as an Air Force veteran has worked in counter-terrorism but voters weren’t aware of that.

Ryan downplayed the chances of a larger trend resulting out of the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th District. The “pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative” is going to win, he said.

The Wisconsin Republican wasn’t predicting the winner in the still-uncalled race, as he described both Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone in those terms.

Regardless if Lamb wins, Ryan said that he doesn’t expect Democrats to repeat success in similar districts.

“They didn’t have a primary,” he said. “They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative, who ran against the minority leader, who ran on a conservative agenda. You will have primaries in all these other races, and the primaries bring them to the left.”

Lamb was chosen by party delegates at a convention, which can push candidates to party extremes, and not in a traditional primary.

Ryan also rejected arguments that the race shows public disdain for President Donald Trump given he won the district in 2016 by 20 percentage points.

“The public polling wasn’t looking so good, and the president came in and helped close this race and got it to where it is right now, which is within a few hundred votes,” he said.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also said Trump had a “major, positive effect” on the race.

Counting outside groups and the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP outspent Democrats in the special election. But party leaders ignored that and focused in on the fact that Lamb spent more than Saccone as another factor for the expected loss.

It didn’t change the messaging directed at leaders coming from the committee either.

“Same as always,” GOP Rep. Rodney Davis said. “Raise more money.”

The Illinois Republican is one of being targeted by Democrats in 2018, and Trump carried his district by 6 points in 2017. Davis said he was always gearing up for a competitive race, regardless of what happened in Pennsylvania.

“We’re always going to be prepared,” Davis said. “That’s the life of living in a district that’s a competitive district.”

Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., said Tuesday night’s outcome doesn’t worry her. “I’m going to be fine,” she said.

Walters is also a Democratic target since Hillary Clinton won her district by 6 points.

Rep. Claudia Tenney, one of the more vulnerable GOP incumbents, said her race was not comparable to the Pennsylvania race, since her likely Democratic opponent, Anthony Brindisi, has a record in the state assembly.

Brindisi outraised Tenney in the past two fundraising quarters, but Tenney wasn’t worried.

“I’ve always been outspent and I will be outspent grossly in this race, I’m sure because Nancy Pelosi is doubling down,” Tenney said.

GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, who is retiring, said Republicans should be concerned — especially those in safer seats.

“There’s going to be a narrative that the Democrats had their ideal candidate and we didn’t have our preferred candidate,” Dent said. “Truth is this is a very toxic environment and this is a district that’s 95 percent white, Trump won by 20 points.”

“I worry about members who’ve never been in a real fight before,” said the Pennsylvania Republican. “They better be ready.”

Dent signaled there could be even more retirements. “I’d keep your ears open,” he told reporters.

Republicans also continued to say that their tax overhaul is an effective campaign message for Republicans hoping to hang onto the majority. Leaders showed no signs of backing off that rhetoric. Should Lamb win, Democrats have to flip 23 seats to take back the House.

“We’re not even in full momentum on tax reform,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said.

In the final weeks of the race, however, Republican outside groups that were previously touting the tax law swapped out that message for ads criticizing Lamb’s record as a prosecutor. Democrats argued the move demonstrated Republicans did not believe the tax law was moving votes.

But Republicans still believe it will be an important accomplishment to tout on the campaign trail.

“The challenge is, you had a candidate that frankly hadn’t had the opportunity to participate passing it,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said about the shift in messaging on the tax bill in Pennsylvania. Cole, a former NRCC chairman, said incumbents will be able to tell constituents they helped pass the legislation.

Still, Cole said Republicans were aware of the difficult cycle ahead. The president’s party loses on average 33 seats in the first midterm of his presidency.

“I expect it to go right down to the wire in terms of holding the majority,” Cole said. “But I don’t think there’s any illusions on our side.”

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