Pennsylvania Had a Little Lamb
A special election in PA-18 shows the limits of Trumpism
I didn’t stay up last night to see Conor Lamb bring the eighteenth Pennsylvania congressional district back to the Democrats. I think this result will stand, although I think we have to presume that if the final margin is under 1,000 votes, the lawyers will go to work on it, creating a slim possibility that the seat will flip back to the GOP. But the conservative commentators I am reading (so you don’t have to!) don’t think that will happen, and even if it does, the damage is done. As Theodore Kupfer of the National Review pointed out this morning, “the identity of the eventual victor is not as important as the fact that this election is a very bad sign for the Republican Party.” PA-18 “has gone for the Republican presidential nominee by a large margin ever since George W. Bush was president” and Trump won the district by 20 points less than a year and a half ago.
A pattern is starting to emerge in these special elections—not all of them, to be sure, but some of them—which implicitly demonstrates, not just the limits of Trumpism, but perhaps even a way out of the uncompromising politics that have splintered the Democratic Party since the late sixties. For example:
Third party candidates may increasingly determine the outcome of elections, and libertarians may play a crucial role in allowing voters to veto their own party’s candidate. As of this morning, the only aspect of yesterday’s vote tally that seems rock solid is that 1,378 people, or 0.6% of the voters in PA-18 voted for Drew Miller, the libertarian candidate. There’s your seat, folks. One argument might be that had these folks not pulled the lever for Miller, they might not have voted at all, yet that still delivers the seat to Lamb, right? But special elections are characterized by motivated voting, which is not the same thing as being voted by your allegiance to a party—and it seems like those Pennsylvanians who chose Miller made an effort to send a signal to the GOP that they aren’t happy. Several months ago, Happy the Clown could have played a similar spoiler role in Alabama, had he been on the ballot: instead, Alabamians had to go to the effort of writing in candidates who weren’t running at all.
The new Democratic strategy is to chip away at Trump counties just enough to let the suburbs bring it home. This means, of course, that you have to compete robustly in places where you probably can’t win, a technique that requires, among other things, a tolerance for losing the many to gain the significant few. Compare this to the Clinton strategy executed by Robby Mook, which was to build a wall around the districts and counties that you are sure to win, pour your dollars into a few swing states with lots of electoral college votes, and leave the vast majority of the country to Republican rule. The strategy of fighting for every seat and every voter is good for Democrats, but more importantly, it’s good for democracy. As Lamb told his supporters last night, “We followed what I learned in the Marines: Leave no one behind. We went everywhere, we talked to everyone, we invited everyone in.”
Appeals to racism and nativism may motivate people who go to rallies, but they may not motivate actual voters. Yes, the suburban Pittsburgh voters played a big role in Lamb’s success, but PA-18 also contains thousands of the voters that Trump seems to have owned in 2016. They are 96 percent white, and they are working class: the major industrial job sector in PA-18 is energy, coal mining in particular. Which leads me to the speculation that:
Trump’s promise to revive the coal industry is a non-starter for voters who actually know coal. What do these folks know that Trump doesn’t want to hear? That the coal industry is dying, and not because Obama killed it, but because it is possibly one of the most inefficient, wasteful and filthy ways to power a country. As last summer’s report from Secretary Rick Perry’s Department of Energy documents, renewable energy is contributing to the retirement of nuclear and coal-fueled plants, and those retirements are actually occurring in coal country. Other sources point out that natural gas is also cutting deeply into coal. The only growing market is in Asia, where Trump has thoughtfully launched a trade war. But regardless of this, coal exports are not—and never were—a way to sustain the industry: shipping coal is expensive. As the World Coal Association notes, most coal is used where it is mined, and only 18 percent of the world coal market (70 countries, 20 of which have no indigenous coal industry) consists of imports. In addition, coal mining a horrible job that kills workers slowly, and no one knows that better than the families who have done the job for generations: I continue to be skeptical that anything but economic isolation motivates young men to demand a job that has resulted in most of their male relatives carrying an oxygen bottle everywhere they go by the time they are 50 years old.
Firing your secretary of state with a tweet on the day of an important election and as you are heading into negotiations with a nuclear-powered dictatorship does not inspire confidence. Firing any cabinet member on the day of a bell weather special election, one in which your candidate was holding on by a thread, shows an astonishing inability on the part of the president to remember—or perhaps care—that there was an important reason not to look like an impulsive lunatic for the next 24 hours. Or perhaps, as the Washington Examiner argued on Monday, Trump secretly liked Lamb better—and would get behind more candidates like him—minus the looming threat of impeachment. But the fact remains that Trump pays little attention to some of the most basic principles of how elections are won, and was reportedly shocked and dismayed that his own campaign succeeded.
Furthermore, the vast number of working people know that undocumented people have not taken their health care, their pensions, their educations, or their good union jobs; and they also know that getting a $1,000 tip from Walmart after the tax cuts is not even going to stop an eviction. Either you respect working class voters or you don’t, and if you do you have to imagine that the instability of the Trump administration, and its penchant for quick fixes to an industrial economy that has been in decline since the seventies, is troubling to them.
More importantly, it has been one of the principles of campaign strategy that Republicans and Democrats pretty much vote a party line, and that close elections are decided by independents. The sector of the electorate that all campaign strategists care about is the middle, that combination of Reagan Democrats, Independents and small-l libertarians, who often make their decisions on election day, or even in the voting booth. And at least 20 percent of the electorate in PA-18 walked away from Trump, either by not voting at all, or by voting for someone else. These were the people who urged the rest of us to “give Trump a chance”: they did give him a chance, and fifteen months in, they are now apparently done. They voted for a change, and the change, it appears, has not been good.