ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have won a nail-biter special election over Republican Rick Saccone. That's based on a count of the vote from Pittsburgh member station WESA. It's a remarkable upset in a district that President Trump won by more than 20 points less than two years ago. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro is here to tell us what this result says about the national political climate ahead of November's midterms. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: President Trump campaigned in the district for Saccone on Saturday night - still wasn't enough to put Saccone over the top. What does this tell us?
MONTANARO: Well, look. Republicans are really nervous this morning after this result. Here's why. Trump, you said, won this district by 20 points. But Republicans are looking across the map, and they see 118 districts right now that are tighter than that 20-point margin that President Trump won by less than that. So Democrats need to flip 24 seats to win back the House, and today they're feeling a little bit more confident about that, and this result's raising a lot of eyebrows.
SHAPIRO: Explain how Conor Lamb, the Democrat, pulled this off and whether there are broader lessons for his party there.
MONTANARO: So a big thing in this election is the suburbs - and across the country in 2018. And Lamb cleaned up in suburban precincts, the kind that are key to Democrats winning in 2018. But he also made inroads with rural voters. There are more traditional Republican voters still. These places, you know, went overwhelmingly republican to Rick Saccone in this election, but Lamb was able to cut into Saccone's margins. And when every vote counts like in this race, it can make all the difference.
Lamb also put a lot of distance between himself and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, saying that he would not vote for her to be speaker again. He carved out a pretty conservative profile for himself. He stayed away from criticizing President Trump. He's pro-gun. So, you know, this is something that he was able to pull off. And if you're a Democrat and you're looking to win one of those other 118 districts that Trump - that voted for Trump, Lamb might have offered you a path to how you can win.
SHAPIRO: And on the Republican side, the GOP invested heavily in this race - millions of dollars, sending the president to campaign there. What does the GOP take away from this lesson?
MONTANARO: Well, Trump was propelled into office by a surge of votes from these rural whites and whites without a college degree that we talked about. Trump won these groups in historic numbers. Republicans on the ballot this year need those same voters to come out in similar margins the way they did for Trump. If they don't, it could be a big problem for the GOP. So they're waking up today in the halls of Congress, and those incumbents are being told they need to knock on more doors and work a little bit harder because they want to try to hold off a potential Democratic wave.
SHAPIRO: This was a really unusual election. It was a special election. It's happening in a district that is not even going to exist in November...
MONTANARO: (Laughter) Right.
SHAPIRO: ...Because of redistricting in Pennsylvania. So how big a national lesson can you actually draw from this?
MONTANARO: Well, look. It's important to remember that. I mean, it is a great point. You know, this election was almost like it happened in one of those science beakers or something. You know, it'll be gone after class is over, (laughter) you know? But Republicans spent $10 million to try and protect this seat because they didn't want the narrative to become what it is today - that they're struggling, that the enthusiasm is on Democrats' side and that they stand to lose the House.
And here's the thing. Historically, the party in power loses a lot of seats in a president's first midterm, and it's even worse when a president's approval rating is below 50 percent like President Trump's is today.
SHAPIRO: So if Democrats are trying to take back the House, is the lesson, run against your party leadership; don't criticize the president? That's what Conor Lamb did.
MONTANARO: It depends on where you're running. So if you're running in one of those conservative, Republican-won districts, that might be a way to offer for you. But if you're running in a little bit more of a moderate district, that's where we could see some of that pull from the left in some of these primaries.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks.
MONTANARO: Hey, you're welcome.
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