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The Meaning of the GOP’s Defeat in Pennsylvania’s Special Election

There have been a number of different analyses of the Pennsylvania special election where the GOP lost a seat in a friendly congressional district that Trump carried by 20 points.

At one end of the extreme, Kyle Smith writing in National Review, forebodes doom for the GOP come the midterm elections with Trump at the helm. But what about all the policy successes of the Trump Administration? Smith responds,

So what? say the voters in PA-18, a district Trump won by 20 points, where the Republican candidate Rick Saccone had no major defects (and the Democratic winner Conor Lamb can be expected to vote with Nancy Pelosi on nearly all occasions) and where Trump’s economically illiterate faith in tariffs is popular. Saccone lost the district anyway. To borrow language from the anthem of Trump’s hometown, if the GOP can’t make it there, it can’t make it anywhere. It’s because of Trump that the (R) next to Saccone’s name was too great a burden to overcome.

Less apocalyptic, is the historical interpretation of mid-term results offered by Jay Cost. Even though he believes the election of Conor Lamb in a reliably red district is not a good sign, Cost notes that,

History suggests that the thing that can save the Republican majority is an uptick in Trump’s job-approval numbers. Gallup has him at 39 percent right now, and the average of all polls puts him around 41 percent, or thereabouts. If he can push that number up to 45 percent, I’d say the GOP has a fighting chance at the majority.

However, the more important question that is rarely addressed by the Never Trump crowd is, if Nancy Pelosi becomes speaker again, what type of political party will emerge from the ashes of the mid-term defeats to be either reborn or ineradicably fragmented?

From the start, Anti-Trump Republicans, particularly Bush loyalists, have never been capable or astute enough of rising above their visceral dislike of the brazen New Yorker to ask, exactly what conditions made it possible for political neophyte to dispatch all the Republican establishment candidates and go on to defeat the invincible Hillary Clinton? Given the potential for losses in November, it is difficult to believe that the Old Guard of the GOP will be any less equal to the task at hand of restructuring any post-Trump party that is politically viable in the changing climate of the 21st century.

Here is a thought experiment for those who claim that Trump has destroyed the Republican “brand.” Suppose Mitt Romney, or another member of the pre-Trump establishment, throws his hat in the ring to challenge Trump in 2020. Does anyone believe that such a candidate would stand a chance in the primaries with Republican rank and file voters? The reality of this scenario is exemplified in the increasingly pathetic lamentations of Jeff Flake over the fate of the Republican Party and the irreparable damage Trump has inflicted.

Given all the criticism Flake has leveled at Trump and at Trumpism, what type of political institution does Flake envision once Trump is gone? A party comprised of weak-kneed establishment Republicans such as himself?

This is wishful thinking: the changes Trump wrought on the party are ineradicable. There will be no going back to business as usual. Either the party makes some attempt to embrace those new voters Trump brought into the fold or the GOP will split into two different factions that will never reconcile: those like Flake, who somehow believe the return to the status quo will make the party attractive to voters and those who believe that the GOP of old was an ossified institution, that over time became captive to its donor class and whose leaders had more in common with the Democratic Party than they did with their own voters.