President Trump took off Saturday for the Moon — Moon Township, Pa., just south of Pittsburgh — and tried to sell America a bad batch of green cheese. The rally that “45” held this weekend in a desperate, 11th-hour bid to prop up sagging GOP congressional candidate Rick Saccone in a special election in Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be-no-more 18th Congressional District seemed to leave the media at a loss for words to describe these rallies which, simmering in blood-red Mussolini sauce, are both painfully predictable and yet still very much #NotNormal.
The New York Times, still floundering around for the right voice in the Trump Era, described the president’s performance as “rambling and animated, boastful and jocular.” I watched the exact same speech and am still struggling to nail down which part was “jocular.” The part where Trump falsely claimed he was supported by 52 percent of women, when actually he was supported by 52 percent of WHITE women, suggesting how little the president really thinks of his millions of nonwhite female constituents? The not-ready-for-prime-time moment when he called an American journalist, Chuck Todd, “a sleeping son-of-a-bitch“? Or when he claimed that a black female congresswoman, Rep. Maxine Waters, is a “low-IQ individual“? Or when he celebrated International Women’s Day by blasting Waters, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Oprah Winfrey, and Elizabeth (“Pocahontas”) Warren, yet had little bad to say about male Democrats (except for Barack Obama, of course)? His contribution to public policy consisted of a plea to execute drug dealers — just as they do in authoritarian states like Singapore and China.
Trump’s speech might more accurately be described as “racist and misogynistic, autocratic bordering on fascism” — but I guess those words aren’t in the New York Times stylebook. Anyway, the politically most salient point about Trump’s effort to save right-wing state lawmaker Rick Saccone — who, in typical fashion, was a little-seen prop for the president’s freestyle egomaniacal monologue — is that it was probably too little, too late.
A Democratic win in the 18th — in Pennsylvania’s far southwest corner, a rust-bitten wedge dotted with shuttered and struggling steel mills and coal mines, which went for Trump in 2016 by a whopping 20 percentage points — will be seen as a big upset and a repudiation of the White House. That upset might not happen, but the chances for Democrat upstart Conor Lamb are looking better by the day. Several recent polls show Lamb — a 33-year-old attorney trained here in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania, with a slight lead. According to recent articles coming out of the Beltway, Team Trump and other GOP leaders have already started playing the blame game for an expected defeat, calling out Saccone as a sub-par candidate who couldn’t be saved.
I know a little bit about what’s now PA-18; I lived there briefly in the early 1980s as a young journalist for the Washington Observer-Reporter. I remember trying to figure out why schools were closed and public officials all vanished on December 1 (it was the first day of deer season!), struggling to understand town board members when they addressed folks as “you’uns” (a less refined version of Pittsburgh’s “yinz”), and my trips on winding two-lane roads to dying coal hollows like Marianna, where the remaining residents bought dresses and guns in a downtown general store in the Land Before Walmart.
Some 35 years of additional oxidation later, it’s a place seemingly tailor-made for a candidate like Lamb — smart, good-looking and with an impeccable resume that includes stints as an attorney for the Marines and a federal prosecutor. Handpicked for the special election by local Democratic bosses, which meant he didn’t have to face a primary electorate that has been moving left, even in the Rust Belt, Lamb seems to bring everything you’d want in Deer Hunter country.
I was struck reading my colleague Jonathan Tamari’s recent reporting from the district, where Democratic and middle-of-the-road voters seem truly energized … about sending Trump a one-fingered salute. Conor Lamb? Meh. Wrote Tamari: “Outside Lamb’s rally with Biden at Robert Morris University, several Democrats said they wished Lamb was closer to their views on guns, abortion, and wealth disparity. But even those who described themselves as liberal still wore Lamb campaign pins, saying he gave them the best shot to win here – and send a message to Trump.” Typical was voter Evelyn Harris, who told the Inquirer reporter that Lamb is “not as far left as I’d like.”
These are the voters who deliver special elections, and they may do so on Tuesday because of antipathy for Trump, not because of any love for Lamb. And there’s a lot for the Democratic base and voters on the left not to like about their special-election candidate. Although ostensibly pro-union, Lamb won’t support a $15 living wage. His attacks on fellow Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are more than a tad awkward in this season of #MeToo politics. But then, Lamb goes out of his way to not mention that he’s a Democrat, or discuss any policy at all other than he’s for “working people.”
While there’s no dispute that Western Pennsylvania leans right on guns, Lamb’s passion for weaponry — he filmed a campaign spot firing an AR-15 — is shameful in a political moment dominated by the Parkland massacre. Hours after a teen gunman mowed down 17 people in the corridors of that Florida high school, Lamb (who mildly supports stronger background checks and thus sits a tad left of his fellow gun zealot Saccone) said, “I believe we have a pretty good law on the books.” Since Parkland, Florida’s NRA-backed Gov. Rick Scott has shown more gumption on guns than Lamb. Let that sink in. Sometimes firing an assault rifle for the camera isn’t a mark of political courage but cowardice.
That said, the Tea Party-backed Saccone, a Trump acolyte, would be measurably worse than Lamb. Still, one senses — given rising rage toward Trump, his abusive governing style and his trail of broken promises — that Democrats would vote for Being There‘s slow-witted Chauncey Gardiner if they believed it would deliver a blow to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The numbers bear that out. In a slew of special elections since the start of 2017, Democrats have shown the greatest gains in areas that went for Trump — regardless of the candidate.
The thing is, a Lamb victory on Tuesday might give Democrats exactly the wrong lesson — that all they need to do is fire a few rounds from their semi-automatic and mansplain Pelosi and they can buy a one-way ticket to Reagan National — going into the wider 2018 midterms. What has really explained the rising fortunes of Democrats, including special-election wins in red states and gains in places like Virginia? A new study by two top political scientists has found one giant X-factor — the surge in energy from mostly suburban women, especially in the 30-70 age bracket.
“The new upsurge is not centered in the progressive urban enclaves where most national pundits live; nor is it to be found among the grizzled men in coal country diners where journalists escape to get out of the bubble,” write Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol in the journal Democracy. “Neither of those poles looks much like most of America anyway. About half the country lives in the suburbs, twice the number who live in either fully urban or rural settings. More than half of Americans are also women – and of those, half are in their thirties to sixties. It is in this Middle America, and among these Middle Americans, that political developments since the November 2016 election have moved fastest and farthest.”
Putnam, who teaches not far from PA-18 at the University of Pittsburgh, adds that she “has come to believe there is an epochal ‘generation’ in the making: a cohort of Americans for whom life-cycle stage and personal trajectory collided with public events – the election of Donald Trump; the Women’s Marches and calls to action that followed – in ways that changed life after life in very similar, and very consequential, directions.” Needless to say, Conor Lamb, his AR-15, or other Democrats who wish to imitate him don’t do a lot to move these voters.
This isn’t the only way forward; another new study published in the Times last weekend urged the Democrats to push to regain a few million young and mostly nonwhite Obama voters who failed to show up at the pols in 2016; that wouldn’t mean so much in predominantly white PA-18, but it could sway key Senate races from Texas to Ohio. That, and tapping into the energy of angry, anti-Trump women. Playing for the God, guns and gold crowd that went ga-ga for Trump in 2016 seems a much lower priority — especially when it might drive away the first two groups.
But if the past is prologue, Beltway Democrats are going to get the wrong message from whatever happens on Tuesday. The worst plan for moving past the Trump nightmare would surely be to lead a flock of “Lambs” into November, some of whom will surely be slaughtered at the polls.