WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump downplayed the significance of the Democratic victory in the special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District on Wednesday, claiming that Conor Lamb won because he tried to be "like Trump."
Lamb, a political newcomer, was projected to defeat state Rep. Rick Saccone in Tuesday's election, although the margin was thin. It was a staggering show of Democratic strength in a deep-red Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump won by almost 20 points in 2016.
"The young man last night that ran, he said, 'Oh, I'm like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.' He ran on that basis," Trump said at a fundraiser in Missouri on Wednesday, according to The Atlantic. "He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, 'Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.'"
Lamb, in fact, ran against the GOP-passed tax cut law. And even conservative groups realized that the signature achievement of the Republican Congress wasn't resonating with voters; they shifted away from that issue as the campaign went on. Saccone, however, tried to sell himself as a politician in the mold of Trump.
Just last weekend, Trump campaigned outside of Pittsburgh for GOP candidate Rick Saccone, a state senator whose message was built on support of Trump and his policies. But what typically would have been an easy GOP victory on Tuesday evening became a narrow race between Saccone and Lamb that stretched into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Lamb declared victory, leading by only a few hundred votes. By Wednesday evening, he was projected to win as the remaining absentee, provisional and military ballots would not have been enough for Saccone to surpass Lamb.
Trump claimed Wednesday that he "lifted [Saccone] 7 points up," although it's not clear how he came up with that number.
"It's actually interesting, because it's only a congressman for five months," Trump added, downplaying the results. Because of redistricting, the 18th District will exist in its current form only until the end of the year. Lamb's hometown will be shifted into a new district, an area where Trump would have won by just 3 percentage points.
Saccone's projected loss would add to a string of embarrassing Republican performances in special elections as the 2018 midterm primaries loom. Trump has distanced himself from previous GOP special election losers, including Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was upset by Democrat Doug Jones.
The southwestern Pennsylvania congressional district, a traditional GOP bastion that includes the affluent south suburbs of Pittsburgh and rural towns in former coal country, became vacant late last year, when former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) resigned after pressuring a woman with whom he had an affair to get an abortion.
Republicans had invested vast time and energy trying to prevent a close race against Lamb, who gained support in part by distancing himself from national Democrats and staking out more conservative positions.
In addition to Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and two of Trump's children, Donald Trump Jr. and White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, had visited the area in recent weeks to drum up support for Saccone.
By Tuesday night, as a closer-than-expected race appeared likely, Republicans were already coming up with various reasons to blame Saccone and downplay the results, with one GOP strategist complaining about the candidate's facial hair.
White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah suggested to reporters Wednesday that Trump should take credit for helping Saccone ― a message similar to what the president said at the fundraiser later that night.
"The president's engagement in the race turned what was a deficit for the Republican candidate to what is essentially a tie," he said.
But Saccone was widely predicted to win the traditionally GOP district.
Shah also claimed that Lamb won because he "really embraced the president's policies and his vision."
Under Pennsylvania law, this congressional election does not automatically trigger a recount. Saccone could petition for a recount within five days.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.