Regardless of the overall outcome of Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania, the political message is clear: Republicans are in trouble.
The margin between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb is so close that Republicans everywhere should take note — and be worried. Even if Saccone manages to scrape by and win, nothing will change the fact that Donald Trump overwhelmingly won the same district in 2016. But maybe Saccone just wasn’t a good candidate. The generic ballot between Republicans and Democrats in Congress is not good. But being down almost 8 points in March is not determinative. The same can be said of the president’s 41 percent approval rating. It’s not fatal. The focal point of the Republican Party, the White House, is in constant turmoil and has no coherent message.
But people outside the Beltway don’t care about musical chairs in Washington, and message discipline is overrated. And finally, even though the historical midterm cycle is against Republicans, sometimes history does not repeat itself. So, if you are in the market to rationalize, it is easy to dismiss any one component of the current political dynamic and say that the eventual outcome of Tuesday’s special election and how things look today are not necessarily indicative of what might be in November. That is only, of course, if you choose to be delusional. The truth is that these factors taken together make it look as though the Republican Party is facing a 12-alarm fire.
To be clear, this is what a losing cycle looks like. And this is what a wake-up call sounds like. Everyone seems to see it and hear it except for President Trump. But Trump is the only person who can move the needle for Republicans right now. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have limits on the reach of their megaphones. They will do what they can to rally voters behind the Republican agenda, but only the bully pulpit of the presidency will make a real difference.
Trump must realize moving forward that what he says and what he does need to have broader appeal than to just those who turn out for his rallies. That doesn’t mean he should voice panic or admit his blunders, but it does mean he should be more thoughtful and measured in what he says and does. What’s new? Similarly, Republicans (besides me) shouldn’t be hand-wringing in public. It isn’t time for rending garments and putting on ashes and sackcloth just yet.
With that said, if Trump learns anything from Tuesday’s special election, it is that presenting a modicum of self-awareness and perhaps a more reassuring, more serious tone from the White House could have a calming effect on Republican voters. I worry that many independent and marginal Republican voters are so shocked and frightened by the president’s persistently erratic behavior that they think he needs to be checked by an empowered Democratic Party in Congress. And for their part, Democrats have become increasingly energized in response to constant Trump-induced turmoil. As the election soothsayers at FiveThirtyEight noted Wednesday, the recent special elections show that voter enthusiasm among Democrats is high and producing “major shifts under midterm-like conditions that ought to really scare Republicans.” Well, consider me sufficiently scared. But is Trump?
More than 40 percent of those in top-level positions in the Trump administration have jumped ship since the beginning of the president’s term. That should be another wake-up call for the president to change how he is operating. If not, maybe Tuesday’s embarrassing election will. Republicans can only hope.