Los Angeles: President Donald Trump woke up in the land of earthquakes in California on Wednesday morning, but he was 4000kms away from the tremor that was shaking his party.
While the President hobnobbed with wealthy donors in the enclave of Beverly Park on Tuesday night, the voters in the suburbs south of Pittsburgh were in revolt, the Democrats were claiming victory in a Pennsylvania congressional election seen as a referendum on Trump's performance.
Conor Lamb, a Democrat and former Marine, scored a razor-thin but extraordinary upset in a special House election in southwestern Pennsylvania after a few thousand absentee ballots cemented a Democratic victory in the heart of Trump's Rust Belt base.
The Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, may still contest the outcome, but Lamb's 627-vote lead Wednesday afternoon appeared insurmountable, given that the four counties in Pennsylvania's 18th district have about 500 provisional, military and other absentee ballots left to count.
Just as they did outside Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, in December, and Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, DC, in November, energised and angry suburban voters were swamping the Trump stalwarts in the more rural parts of those regions, sending a clear message to Republicans around the country.
While Republican turnout in a district that Trump won by 20 percentage points was healthy, Democrats showed again they could tap unions and other traditionally friendly groups to get their voters out. Organised labour, once seen as fractured in the Trump era, gave Democrat Conor Lamb his lead in Pennsylvania overnight, and a possible victory.
Whether Lamb holds on to win the House seat matters less than the fact that he was so competitive in Trump's heartland. The rebuke of Trump came from a part of western Pennsylvania that overwhelmingly supported him in 2016. The district is seen as so strongly Republican that the Democrats did not even field a candidate in recent years.
And while Saccone carried the most Trump-supporting counties along the West Virginia border, Lamb made just enough inroads in those rural areas to give the voters in suburban Allegheny County the chance to deliver the Democrat the slimmest of leads.
Rarely shy about weighing in on the news of the day, Trump made no mention of the race on Twitter on Wednesday morning. Instead, he left it to an aide to find the silver lining. Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, told reporters on Air Force One en route that Trump helped the Republican candidate and asserted that the Democrat's showing was a validation of the popularity of the President's policies.
"The President's engagement in the race turned what was a deficit for the Republican candidate to what is essentially a tie," Shah said.
"Also 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."
The stinging message could hardly have been more pointed for a Republican President mired in low approval ratings, burdened by investigations and facing the growing likelihood that Democrats may seize power in the Congress later this year.
Lamb, 33, defied political geography and appeared on the verge of capturing the state's 18th District despite a torrent of Republican money and Trump's personal intervention. At a rally Saturday, Trump mocked Lamb as "Lamb the Sham," promised Saccone would "vote for us all the time," as he sought to transfer his own political success to the Republican candidate.
In the end, none of it seemed to work. Democratic enthusiasm appeared to overwhelm a part of the state. For the President, the vote is an ominous echo of Democratic victories in Virginia and Alabama, where his political efforts were shrugged off or counterproductive.
The tally was also a rejection of the President's political calculation that tax cuts and steel tariffs would persuade voters in a region once dominated by the steel industry to embrace the Trump agenda on behalf of Saccone. "Steel is back," he said at the rally, apparently to little effect.
A Republican victory in Pennsylvania might have helped deflect attention from the continuing collapse of the President's inner circle, which this week included Trump's firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the forced resignation of John McEntee, one of Trump's closest personal aides, who is under investigation for financial crimes and was marched out of the White House.
Instead, Saccone's lacklustre performance was a grim bookend for a day in which the President's trip to the Mexico-California border to view wall prototypes was overshadowed by the churning turnovers in his national security team.
Trump and Republican Party leaders had desperately sought to head off an outcome that was once thought of as politically impossible. Conservative groups spent more than $10 million in the hopes of defeating Lamb, who received similar help from Democratic politicians.
A barrage of Republican advertisements condemned Lamb as a "Rubber Stamp for Nancy Pelosi," the Democratic leader in the House. One flyer sent to voters showed Lamb firing an assault weapon, an attempt to weaken the Democrat's support among liberal voters. A deceptive video purported to show Lamb in a fight with labor unions.
But in recent weeks, polls in Pennsylvania showed Saccone's popularity slipping, and Lamb gaining traction.
By the time Trump arrived in Pennsylvania for the rally, the race had tightened, and many White House and Republican Party officials were worried that he was lending his support to a lost cause.
As it turned out, they may have been right. During the rally, Trump called Saccone "an extraordinary person" and dismissed Lamb as someone who should not be trusted.
"The people of Pittsburgh cannot be conned by this guy Lamb, because he's not going to vote for us," Trump said.
The New York Times
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