I’m reading a lot of premature obituaries of Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate in tomorrow’s special election in Pennsylvania’s Eighteenth Congressional District. In 2016, Hillary Clinton led in dozens of polls in the Keystone state all year long and still wound up losing. These pieces are self-conscious enough to provide the caveat that Saccone could still win, but the point is supposed to be that it shouldn’t even be close.
Of course, that depends on your perspective. There are more registered Democrats in the Eighteenth District than Republicans even if Trump won it by twenty points. When I wrote How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values for the magazine, I focused heavily on two counties in the Eighteenth District: Green County and Washington County.
In 2008, Obama essentially tied John McCain in Greene County, losing by just sixty votes. In 2012, Obama lost to Romney by 2,576 votes. But 2016 was a disaster: Clinton won a mere 29 percent of the Greene County vote, costing her 6,367 net votes. Trump picked up 14 percent of his statewide margin from a county that produced fewer than 16,000 total two-party presidential votes.
Just to the north, in more populous Washington County, the erosion was both less extreme and more consequential. Obama lost Washington County by 4,571 votes in 2008 and by 12,885 in 2012. In 2016, Clinton lost by 25,064, which was more than half of the statewide margin. These two lightly populated and heavily white working-class counties alone accounted for 71 percent of Trump’s margin of victory.
In the late 1970s, one-fifth of the country’s new businesses were launched outside of metro areas. Today, only 12 percent are. It’s probably no coincidence that the changing political allegiance of Greene County, Pennsylvania, has come at a time when fully 53 percent of its adult population is not working.
The rural tidal wave more than wiped out Clinton’s advantage in places like Chester County, in the Philly suburbs. Mitt Romney had carried the affluent and traditionally Republican county by 539 votes. Trump’s style, policies, and record of sexual assault weren’t expected to play with Romney Republicans, and they didn’t: Clinton won Chester by 25,568 votes. But that was essentially single-handedly neutralized by Washington County, which has a population less than half the size of Chester’s. Clinton won the big counties, but she lost the small counties so badly it didn’t matter. The state, along with the country, had realigned, but the realignment wasn’t an even trade.
What we’re seeing right now is more of a return to the old norm than some kind of collapse. People are laughing at the chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party, Val DiGiorgio, for saying that the Eighteenth is a Democratic district, but it’s not a ridiculous statement if you take a longer view.
If Saccone does indeed lose it will be largely because he does so poorly in union households, and that’s a problem mostly of his own making. To put it mildly, he has taken their votes for granted during his time serving in the state legislature in Harrisburg. I suspect Trump’s sudden announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs was timed to compensate for this weakness, but it doesn’t appear to have had much influence. The United Steelworkers appear more united than ever, and they’re still rallying for Saccone’s opponent, Democrat Conor Lamb.
If Saccone ekes out a win despite all these disadvantages, we’ll be told that it’s still a major warning sign for Republicans that the election was close. And that will be accurate in a place like Pennsylvania assuming that Trump doesn’t cut his losses in the suburbs to compensate for his diminished strength in more rural and culturally conservative areas. For Democrats, the more important development will be that they’ve found a way to win in areas that they aren’t supposed to be able to win anymore. This would help them compete again in state legislatures as well as give them a vastly improved chance of winning the U.S. House of Representatives. And this will be true even if their gains in rural areas are offset by losses in suburban ones. That’s because of simple political geography. If the Democrats are limited to competing in urban and suburban seats, they will not be able to win legislative majorities even if they get more overall votes.
Anyone who wrote off the people of the Eighteenth as irredeemable racists and deplorables will have to reconsider if Lamb does as well as expected. But, the truth is, things have gone desperately wrong to get us to the point where a Democrat winning this district is some kind of national story. Again, in 2008, Obama and McCain basically tied in Greene County, and then two years ago Clinton couldn’t even carry thirty percent of the vote there. Those basic facts should have given people more pause when they assumed that these working class whites were too racist to be reached. Conor Lamb is reaching them, and he’s not doing it by selling out blacks or Latinos or gays or other vulnerable groups. He’s doing it by creating some distance between himself and the national party, vowing not to support Pelosi for Speaker, for example. But he’s also doing it by making his top priority the opioid crisis and emphasizing infrastructure, health care, protecting Social Security and Medicaid, protecting unions, and helping people with their student debt.
We better hope he can win with those policies in what used to be a competitive seat. And people should emulate his model whether he’s ultimate victorious or not, because he’s shown that the Democrats can compete everywhere without selling people out.
I just don’t want people thinking that Trump’s failures are the sole explanation. They haven’t helped the Republican, but the bigger factors are Saccone’s record and Lamb’s strategic campaign. Taken all together, these things have made this election what it should have been along, which is highly competitive.