CNN Newsroom host John Berman opened the show Wednesday with a "Kaboom!", intended to serve as a "not so dramatic re-enactment of the political explosion that went off last night." The political explosion Berman referred to was Democrat Conor Lamb's strong performance and potential victory in the special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, a district President Trump carried by 20 points in the 2016 presidential election.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting and approximately 4,000 absentee and provisional ballots awaiting tally, Lamb leads Republican Rick Saccone by a little more than 600 votes, which equates to two-tenths of a percentage point. The Associated Press has yet to officially declare a winner.
Berman, like many of his counterparts on the “alphabet soup” networks, seemed quite pleased by the election results: “A Democrat is poised to win a special election in a congressional district that Donald Trump carried by 20 points, a district where no Democrat even bothered to run the last two elections, a district no Democrat really even has any business coming close in.” As he introduced his political panel, he mentioned “I cannot stress enough how not close this should have been.”
Mary Katharine Ham, the token conservative on the panel, pointed out another wild card that may have played to the Democrats’ advantage, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party selected Lamb; a more moderate Democrat who promised to vote against Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker and did not viciously attack President Trump. In many, if not all of the regularly scheduled races taking place in districts similar to Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District this fall, Democratic primary voters get to pick the candidates. Democratic primary voters represent the far left of the party, who do not normally favor the more moderate candidates that could actually win in those districts.
According to panelist Rebecca Berg, “the real story here is Donald Trump’s drag on Republicans up and down the ballot.” She added that “Republicans with their anti-Pelosi message, with their pro-tax reform message were not able to overcome Donald Trump’s drag on Republican candidates and so that’s why we see what we’re seeing now, a Democrat winning a race where a Democrat shouldn’t have even been competitive.”
History shows that the President’s party tends to lose seats in the midterm elections, as well as during the first off-year elections after a President’s first election. So the fair and balanced media must have surely mentioned that Obama served as a drag as Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. Not quite. When the incumbent Democratic New Jersey Governor lost re-election to Republican Chris Christie and Republican Bob McDonnell beat his Democratic opponent by double digits in the Virginia gubernatorial election in 2009, the media acted as if off-year elections "don’t matter."
Just four years earlier, the media painted the Republicans’ disappointing performance in the 2005 off-year election as a bad sign for the GOP heading into the 2006 midterm elections, where Republicans did end up losing control of the House and the Senate. Just this past November, off-year elections apparently did matter as Democrats picked up the governorship in consistently Democratic New Jersey and maintained control of the Governor’s mansion in increasingly Democratic Virginia, in addition to picking up several seats in the state legislature there, all but one of them carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
If off-year elections “don’t matter”, then surely special elections should matter even less. The media expects the American public to have short memories; as they downplayed the results of the Massachusetts special senatorial election in 2010, where Republican Scott Brown beat Democrat Martha Coakley in the overwhelmingly Democratic state of Massachusetts as the debate over nationalized health care stood front and center. Yet, when Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore in a special senatorial election last year in heavily Republican Alabama, the media made it seem like “‘every Republican’ must ‘fear for their political lives.’”
Not surprisingly, the media made basically the same argument about the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. The media only care about political “explosions” when they benefit their side, they downplay or ignore them when they don’t.
To see the relevant transcript from the March 14 a.m. edition of CNN Newsroom, click "expand."
JOHN BERMAN: All right. Good morning everyone. John Berman here. Kaboom! A not-so dramatic re-enactment of the political explosion that went off overnight. A Democrat is poised to win a special election in a Congressional District than Donald Trump carried by 20 points, a district where no Democrat even bothered to run the last two elections, a district no Democrat really even has any business coming close in. It’s not official yet but Conor Lamb leads Rick Saccone by 641 votes. Saccone has yet to concede but the message is loud and clear. Democrats can compete in more places than they have in years and have a real shot to win the House next fall. This morning, one Republican called it a political earthquake and it is safe to say the party is shaken to its core, that is C-O-R-E. Inside joke.
BERMAN: I’m joined by CNN Political Reporter Rebecca Berg, CNN Political Commentator Mary Katharine Ham and CNN Contributor Bianna Golodryga. And guys, look. It’s not official yet; it’s a 641-vote margin. They haven’t declared the race over yet but I cannot stress enough how not close this should have been. Let me just put up the figures once again so everyone can see them. Donald Trump won this district by more than 20 points. That’s not the one I want. Donald Trump won this seat by more than 20 points in 2016. You know, Tim Murphy, who was the Republican who held this seat, was not even opposed the last two elections. Mitt Romney won by 17 points when he ran here. So Rebecca, what happened?
REBECCA BERG: Well, Republicans, John, are saying that it was just a bad candidate who didn’t fit the district, who didn’t run a good campaign. He didn’t raise enough money, he didn’t define himself, he didn’t define his opponent. And that’s the message we’re going to be hearing, well we won’t be hearing but Republicans will be hearing in a closed meeting later today from NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers, I’m told by a source familiar with his planned remarks. But at the same time, John, the real story here is Donald Trump’s drag on Republicans up and down the ballot. If Donald Trump were a more popular President, it’s likely we wouldn’t have seen this happen. And so what we learned from this race or what we’re continuing to learn from this race is that Republicans with their anti-Pelosi message, with their pro-tax reform message were not able to overcome Donald Trump’s drag on Republican candidates and so that’s why we see what we’re seeing now, a Democrat winning a race where a Democrat shouldn’t have even been competitive.
BERMAN: As we speak, Steve Stivers, who is the Chair of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, Mary Katharine, is meeting with Republican House members and telling them, be afraid, get your acts together. And look, he’s saying, yes, Rick Saccone was not the best candidate of all but he’s saying we’ve got to take this very, very seriously. And the Cook Political Report says there are 47 districts where Republicans are as vulnerable as Saccone. Because obviously, you know, so what does this mean? What should Republicans be thinking this morning?
MARY KATHARINE HAM: They, they may be counting their lucky stars that the bomb went off now so that they can start thinking about this because it is hard to ignore. Look, you can overinterpret special elections. It’s our job. But you cannot, I think, you can’t ignore the fact that every special election, even in Trump’s supportive areas, have had the same swing toward Democratic enthusiasm and away from Republicans. And that matters. If that is the dynamic on the board, then that’s what November is going to look like and they have to localize races, they have to prepare themselves for this and they have to separate themselves from Trump if that is what’s called for in their districts. I will say a note of caution for both parties, for Republicans, one, that yes, there are many more districts that are more competitive than this one or at least as competitive as this one. And two, for Democrats, it is important to note that Conor Lamb was an extremely good candidate. I think Saccone was not as bad as they’re going to talk about him being. Conor Lamb was an extremely good candidate, he was picked by committee, not by primary. Progressive voters in Democratic primaries are not going to make the same decisions in picking a Pennsylvania Democrat, this old model of moderate Democrat, and so that is where they will lose some competitiveness in these seats despite their enthusiasm.
BERMAN: I will say, though, Conor Lamb is no unicorn. Right? Seth Moulton and other Congressional Democrats have been recruiting veterans, you know, people who have the same type of resume, both men and women, as Conor Lamb. They may not be able to prevail every time in Democratic races where there are primaries but he won’t be the only one just like that.
HAM: He won’t be the only one but progressives are demanding other things on the ground often.
BERMAN: Often, yes, the wings of both parties often pull their candidates in those directions. Bianna, we did hear from Conor Lamb earlier this morning. The issue is, you know, is Donald Trump, is the President a drag on Republican candidates? Listen to how Conor Lamb, maybe the next Democratic Congressman from this district, how he sees it.
ALISYN CAMEROTA: Do you think it says something about Donald Trump?
CONOR LAMB: Not really, other than to say that there are plenty of people here who are still pretty supportive of him from what I can tell. I think that his visits, he came here twice, I think they probably did contribute to the turnout that we saw.
BERMAN: So Bianna, that’s interesting. Conor Lamb is willing to give the President a little bit of credit for helping turn out some of the voters who helped maybe make it closer for Rick Saccone. That may say more about how Conor Lamb chose to run the last couple of months, which is, he didn’t really bother going after President Trump. Is that a model that some Democrats should use?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Well, I think a lot more Democrats will be looking at this model, that’s for sure. Mary Katharine was right, it does come down to the candidate and who they are and he was a good candidate and he, from the get-go, said he was running on local issues, that he was sort of ignoring the noise coming out of Washington. His opponent was doing just the opposite. And you think about what Paul Ryan was even saying last year, before the tax bill had been passed when he said, listen, I told everybody to focus on their own constituents and run locally; ignore what’s coming out of Washington as much as you can. We saw suburban voters really come out, some that had voted, many that had voted for President Trump now come out and vote for the Democratic candidate. And you’re going to possibly see more Republicans now coming out and announcing their retirement and that is something that Democrats really are hoping for going forward, especially given the amount of money that Republicans put into this race. And I don’t care what the President said, trying to hedge his bets, you know, saying reportedly this was a bad candidate. He did go out and stump for him.
BERMAN: Look, Democrats do hope this leads to more Republican retirements. I have talked to people, Republicans on the inside, and they say there aren’t many Republicans who could even retire if they wanted to because so many have already run to the doors. So we’ll see if that happens. We had a graphic that is in The New York Times, which is interesting and it gets to something Bianna was just talking about right now. It shows every precinct, most of the precincts in this district, Pennsylvania 18, the blue marks are where the vote shifted Democratic from the last election, the red marks, which you can’t see because there are hardly any, are where it shifted more Republican. So Rebecca, I mean, the shift here was universal. You know, in Democratic districts, in Democratic precincts, even more Democratic. In Republican precincts, more Democratic as well. Suburban voters and rural voters starting to move.
BERG: Absolutely. And that was the only way that Conor Lamb was going to have a chance to win this district, which went, of course, by 20 points for Donald Trump in the 2016 election but the underlying factors here should really scare Republicans, John, because you have not only suburban voters energized for Democrats, just incredible energy on the Democratic side in a special election but also some of these blue collar voters who might have identified as Democrats before but in 2016 switched their vote to support Donald Trump, those voters, some of them went back to the Democratic side, said, you know, voting for Trump was a one-time thing, but I’m not necessarily going to support a Republican who supports Trump’s agenda, in part because of Trump’s unpopularity. So, those factors really should be disturbing for Republicans looking ahead to November 2018.
BERMAN: So Mary Katharine, go ahead. Let me ask the question, and then you can answer it however you want. The question is, our friend Jason Miller has been on TV saying one of the issues is Rick Saccone wasn’t Trumpy enough. He should have been even Trumpier in how he ran for this Congressional district. But look, the President campaigned in this district twice, I think his sons went twice, the Vice President went. They spent a ton of money in there. I’m not sure how much more Trumpy you can be other than, I mean...
HAM: Well, and Roy Moore, Roy Moore outtrumped Trump in Trump land. Like, I, you know, it only has so much appeal and often that appeal is for Trump himself and not for everyone else. I think Rebecca’s point is really important and this is, look, Trump is a populist, he’s not a partisan, he’s not an ideologue and so when people crossed over for him, it was highly likely if you give them a Conor Lamb, a more moderate Democrat, that they might cross back. So that is something that Republicans have to worry about. And then those who are truly devoted to Trump, this is the line they have to walk where they have to not distance themselves from him too much because they might lose some of that enthusiasm on the other side, which I’m sure is part of this story as well. It’s a tight wire act here. And the Republican party is not famed for being that delicate at these things.
GOLODRYGA: It’s a tight wire act, that only it appears a few people can pull off, including the President. I mean I don’t think it helped Rick Saccone to come out and say that Democratic voters don’t love their country and they don’t love America and they don’t love God because they chose to vote for, for a Democrat. I think history will say that’s probably not the way to appeal to new voters.
BERMAN: Right. Attacking voters never a good thing, a lesson both Democrats and Republicans have learned over time.