Conservatives totally reversed their message on a Democratic candidate once it became clear he’s likely to win the biggest election this year

Conor Lamb.

Conor Lamb.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

  • Republicans sought to paint Democrat Conor Lamb as a “Nancy Pelosi liberal” during his campaign against Republican Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.
  • Once it became clear that Lamb would likely win the special election, Republicans said he won because he was a “moderate Republican.”

In the weeks and months leading up to Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, Republicans sought to paint Democrat Conor Lamb as a “Nancy Pelosi liberal” who held left-wing views on taxes and immigration and would not differentiate himself from national Democrats once elected to Washington, DC.

But once it became apparent that Lamb would, in all likelihood, defeat Republican Rick Saccone in the election by a slim margin, Republicans sought to brand Lamb as a “moderate Republican” whose victory could not be replicated by other Democrats.

Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor, ran a more centrist campaign, splitting with Democratic Party leadership at times.

He was, however, vehemently opposed to the Republican tax bill and supported the Affordable Care Act, tougher gun laws, and abortion rights. He also spoke out against cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Saccone, a state legislator and Air Force veteran, in turn pitched himself as “Trump before Trump” and sought to tie himself closely to President Donald Trump and his agenda, which remain decently popular in the district.

Lamb was wary of criticizing the president along the campaign trail, and said he would not support Pelosi as House speaker. But there was no confusing his policy prescription with the GOP.

When Trump visited the district on Saturday, he decried “Lamb the sham” and said he would be hand-in-hand with Pelosi.

Donald Trump.

Donald Trump.
Getty Images

“He is trying to act like a Republican so he gets – he won’t give me one vote,” Trump said, adding that “somebody like Lamb, he is never going to vote for us.”

“He is now saying – and I appreciate his nice words about me. This is Trump country, right, so he has to say nice. OK. Smart. So he is saying nice things,” Trump said. “Here’s the problem. As soon as he gets in, he is not going to vote for us. He is going to vote the party line. He has to.”

By Tuesday, though, some Republicans began to brand him as one of their own, even inviting him to join the GOP.

“Open question here is whether Democrats can nominate moderate Republicans on their ticket in races across the country,” tweeted Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Tough to replicate w/ base anxiety.”

Fox News host Laura Ingraham called Lamb a “Dem who’s essentially a Republican” when explaining why his likely victory in a district that went for Trump by 20 points in 2016 was not an indication of a “blue wave.”

“Watching @ConorLambPA this morning. He’s basically a younger @TomCottonAR,” Ingraham tweeted Wednesday morning. “Come on, Conor, your natural home is the GOP.”

‘That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard’

The White House too sought to paint Lamb’s victory as a product of him having “embraced” Trump’s policies.

“The Democrat in the race really embraced the president’s policies and his vision whereas he didn’t really embrace Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader,” White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah told reporters aboard Air Force One.

House Speaker Paul Ryan shared a similar message to reporters during a Wednesday press conference.

“I think the candidate that’s going to win this race is the candidate that ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative,” he said. “That’s the candidate that’s going to win this race.”

Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania said during an interview on MSNBC that Ryan’s comment was beneath his intelligence.

“I thought Paul Ryan has a reputation of being a smart guy,” Rendell said. “That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.”

The reaction is a counter to the idea that the results in such a Republican district only further signal an impending Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms. Democrats have racked up a series of wins now in Pennsylvania, Alabama, New Jersey, and Virginia, and the first midterms during a new presidential administration tend to go in favor of the party out of power.

“It’s really hard to see how anyone looks at the factors Republicans are facing at this time, and the environment Republicans are in, and conclude anything other than that we are heading for a very difficult cycle,” a Republican strategist close to the Pennsylvania race told Business Insider.

“The narrow margin in a district the president won handily should be a serious wake up call for Republican incumbents across the map,” the person added late Tuesday night. “No suburban district is safe and every candidate better be ready for the most difficult cycle of their career.”