Democrat Conor Lamb’s special-election victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional district is just the most-recent evidence of the Democratic tidal wave forming this midterm election cycle.

As examples go, it was pretty dramatic: The district voted for Donald Trump by 20 points and Mitt Romney by 17 points in 2012; Democrats did not bother to field a congressional candidate in 2014 and 2016. Yes, Lamb’s margin was only two-tenths of a point, the same margin by which Trump carried Michigan and not much closer than his seven-tenths of a point margins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016 (wins this tight actually do count). Yes, Rick Saccone was a mediocre candidate and Lamb was a very strong one, and yes, Saccone raised relatively little money for his own campaign while Lamb raised a lot. Lamb ran as a very moderate candidate; liberals should take note that he’s a Second Amendment supporter, airing an early ad showing him firing an assault-style rifle. But in a district as Republican as the 18th, a weak and underfunded GOP candidate should still beat a well-funded, rock-star Democrat.

The outcome in the 18th was a continuation of a pattern seen in seven special House elections last year: Democrats running 6 to 12 points better than what The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index would suggest they should in those districts, averaging an 8-point over-performance. Similarly, there was a 15-point over-performance for Democrat Doug Jones in December’s Senate victory in Alabama. Individually, each of these examples could be explained away, or rationalized, but collectively they tell a clear story.

Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman notes that there are 118 GOP House members—almost half of the House Republican Conference—in districts with a PVI score worse for the GOP than the one Lamb just won. Almost three-quarters—174 out of the current 238 to be exact—of GOP members were not elected before 2007, meaning they have never been re-elected in a year with significant headwinds, like those last experienced by Republicans in 2006. Republicans benefitted from tailwinds in President Obama’s 2010 and 2014 midterm years. Any Republican attempting to dismiss the severity of this pattern should remember Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent’s line that “denial is not just a river in Egypt; this is a real problem.”

These results fit squarely with what history tells us about midterm election losses for the party that holds the White House, particularly when a president has low job-approval ratings, as President Trump’s are. This should not just be a concern for Beltway Republicans, but in state races up and down the ballot as well. Earlier this week, this column reported statistics compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Tim Storey, that in 27 of the past 29 midterm elections, the party in the White House lost state legislative seats. Storey, the undisputed nonpartisan authority on state elections, also calculates that the president’s party has not gained governorships in 26 out of 29 midterm elections since 1902, averaging a net loss of 4.5 governorships in these midterm election cycles.

The worst midterm gubernatorial loss came in 1922, when Warren G. Harding’s GOP lost 12 governorships. Republicans lost 11 governorships in Richard Nixon’s 1970 mid-term, and Democrats lost the same number in Bill Clinton’s 1994 midterm election. The only gains for the White House party since 1902 were with Calvin Coolidge in 1926 and Ronald Reagan in 1986, while Democrats broke even in 1998 under Clinton. Storey notes that he includes in the midterm results the preceding odd-year election, so for example, the loss last year of the New Jersey governor’s race (Virginia remained in Democratic hands) would start the 2018 count as minus one seat for Trump.

A lot of veteran Republican strategists and consultants are quietly warning GOP candidates of what lays ahead for them. Some are not so quiet. Former National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Liesl Hickey, one of the sharpest GOP operatives around, laid it out in three tweets on Wednesday:



We have a growing economy, with low inflation; businesses busy hiring, expanding, and investing; and an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent for five consecutive months, a 17-year low. Keeping in mind that most new jobs are created by small business, the National Federation of Independent Business’ small-business-owner optimism index is at a 35-year high. The just-released Business Roundtable survey of 137 CEOs of the largest corporations in America shows the best economic outlook in the survey’s 15-year history. And yet we have a president with toxic poll numbers who is becoming a millstone around the necks of Republicans in even some of the most GOP-leaning states and districts in the country.

This story was originally published on on March 15, 2018

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