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The Globe and Mail

Pennsylvania election: Sound and fury, signifying … almost nothing

Sound and fury, signifying … almost nothing.

Tuesday night’s hard-fought battle in a congressional riding that U.S. President Donald Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016 left Conor Lamb, the Democrat, with an advantage of a few hundred votes while leaving Rick Saccone, the Republican, in the position of challenging the result and perhaps even pushing for a cumbersome recount.

The results sent shock waves across the United States, cheering liberals, discomfiting Trump supporters and raising questions about the durability of the President’s appeal in regions chock full of his rebellious supporters.

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But in truth, the special election in the Pittsburgh suburbs was much like special elections throughout American history – idiosyncratic contests that nonetheless are portrayed by the pugilists as a referendum on the chief executive who sits in the White House, used as a battering ram for partisan fundraising and attracting enormous, but outsized, attention from an international press corps thirsty for indications of presidential voter appeal and suggestions about how future elections might turn out.

The contest between Mr. Lamb and Mr. Saccone had all of those characteristics – and more, including two visits from Mr. Trump, who had proclaimed that the GOP state legislator, if elected, would be his ‘’wing man’’ in the American capital. In the fallow time between the end of the NFL season and the opening of the Major League Baseball season, this election was sport for the political cognoscenti and fodder for commentators who, not anticipating the Tuesday morning firing of secretary of state Rex Tillerson, had little else to ponder in early March.

This special election, to be sure, seemed different, largely because Mr. Trump infused it with significance, but in fact there have been 86 special elections like this one since the beginning of the 21st century alone, and there breathes hardly a soul outside each of those ridings who remembers any of them even a few weeks later. The importance of these contests is almost always inflated, in part because the local combatants themselves know that national attention brings national money.

The classic example of a special election freighted with false significance came on the north shore of Massachusetts almost exactly a half-century ago, when an insurgent Democrat, Michael Harrington, defeated a classic establishment Republican, William Saltonstall, in a contest described as a referendum on then-President Richard Nixon, who was then beginning his efforts to unwind the war in Vietnam. Mr. Harrington imported anti-war icons such as senators George McGovern and Edmund Muskie (both presidential candidates three years later) along with the singer Peter Yarrow (of the Peter, Paul and Mary folk group), while Mr. Saltonstall was photographed with Mr. Nixon at the White House.

‘”Everybody said this was a referendum on Nixon, and even I said it,’’ Mr. Harrington recalled in an interview this week. ‘’Well, the war in Vietnam may have elected me, but Nixon didn’t elect me, no matter what the press said.’’ In the event, the two candidates probably spent as much time talking about the local shoe industry, then in swift retreat to the Carolinas, as about national issues.

The meaning of this Pennsylvania contest in 2018 is further diluted by a quirk of American politics – the way congressional districts are created. New borders for Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional ridings are now being drafted, almost certainly eliminating the district where Tuesday’s contest was conducted. The winner, elected to replace a lawmaker who resigned because of a sex scandal, will have to run for a full term in fewer than eight months in a district that will bear faint resemblance to the one that this week sends him to Washington.

None of this, however, means there aren’t lessons to be learned from Mr. Lamb’s strong performance here this week in a district that combines wealthy suburban liberals, wealthy suburban conservatives, coal miners and workers affiliated with the country’s first Marcellus shale-fracking operation.

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For Republicans, it may not be the lesson that Democrats wish it might be: that the President is toxic even to his own constituents and that his 2016 backers have soured on him because he turned out to be a traditional politician who talks like a populist but acts like a plutocrat.

Mr. Trump defies every rule of politics, including the rule that presidents can be effective election surrogates. Mr. Trump speaks best about himself and for himself, and may be of little assistance to GOP candidates in the autumn midterm congressional elections. In those elections he may not wear coattails (which in American political argot suggests that he can drag partisans into office), but instead may sport an Eisenhower jacket (the waist-length garment the general favoured, possessed of no coattails).

But Mr. Trump, who almost certainly will claim credit for keeping the race as close as it was in a contest with a weak GOP candidate, is not alone in that aspect.

In the 16 special elections during Ronald Reagan’s first term, only one House seat changed party hands – and it moved from Republican to Democrat in a Mississippi riding Mr. Reagan carried in 1980. By 1984, Mr. Reagan won a second term in a 49-state landslide, taking Hinds County, in the centre of that swing district, with 57 per cent of the vote.

In addition, even Republicans believe their candidate, Mr. Saccone, was ineffectual in campaign appearances and so poor a fundraiser that national GOP and conservative groups filled the vacuum with television and web advertisements that fell flat, almost certainly putting too much emphasis on the prospect of a Democratic Congress in 2019 led by representative Nancy Pelosi, whom the campaign spots demonized.

For Democrats, the lesson may be that a moderate candidate with a shimmery résumé – Mr. Lamb graduated from the same Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania, as Mr. Trump, and was a Marine and an effective prosecutor – and a modulated portfolio of issues, especially on jobs and the opioid crisis, can be an effective candidate in Trump-oriented districts.

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Partisans on both sides will have their theories and conclusions. They will be full of sound and fury, and will signify almost nothing.

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