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Big tent, big results

Shock winner: Conor Lamb

The results of a Tuesday special election in a usually deep-red congressional district are just the latest sign that Republicans’ toxic embrace of Donald Trump is hurting not only the country but their party.

With all precincts reporting and absentee ballots counted, Democrat Conor Lamb held a slight lead over Republican Rick Saccone late on Wednesday, pending a possible recount. This in a district that Democrats did not even contest in the two previous elections.

Many voters are looking for what Trump doesn’t have: level-headedness. “People are so tired of the shouting on TV and in our politics,” Lamb said when claiming victory on Wednesday morning.

“Our job in Congress is to attack the problems, not each other,” he continued, promising to “work with anyone”. These are similar themes to those that Doug Jones sounded when he won an improbable victory for the Democrats in an Alabama special Senate race last December.

For Democrats to take full advantage of this moment, they must be a big-tent party. Lamb did not pass progressive purity tests. He opposes new gun-control measures and practically ran against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat of California. Some of his views, such as favouring Trump’s steel and aluminium tariffs, represent unfortunate breaks with old-establishment Democratic positions.

Such differences should not be disqualifying. Democrats should show that they can be a governing party mature enough to look for common ground with those who share an interest in orderly, compassionate government. Republicans forgot that calm competence and public-spiritedness should be the essential requirements for public office. Democrats should not.

Some Republicans blamed the Pennsylvania results on their candidate, who ran an uninspiring campaign and failed to raise enough money. Yet money was not Saccone’s problem after national GOP funding was channelled into the race. And Saccone was not substantially less inspiring than many other Republican officeholders. Rather, Saccone was caught in a Trump trap from which he could not buy or talk his way out: embrace the President and risk inflaming the many voters tired of the chaos, vanity and boorishness; or chart an independent course and risk alienating the pro-Trump GOP base.

Saccone chose to associate closely with the President, claiming that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” Suburban voters punished him.

Many other Republican candidates will face a similar dilemma this year. They have no one to blame but themselves, having for the most part compliantly acceded to Trump’s takeover of the GOP and accelerating debasement of the nation’s politics. But their answer should not be embracing Trump, which carries not only electoral peril but also the moral cost of empowering a man many Republicans know to be arbitrary, unwise and incompetent.

It is sad enough that so many Republicans have sacrificed their honour to hold on to office. Now many of them, such as former Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie and, it seems likely, Saccone, may lose both their honour and the race.