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Jacob Heilbrunn Politics

Red alert: Texas turns blue!

Is Texas, the Lone Star State, about to get a little lonesome for the GOP? There’s been lots of talk in recent months that Senator Ted Cruz may face a stiffer challenge for reelection than he had anticipated. But now a wave of Democratic voter enthusiasm today in primary elections is adding further credibility to that notion. The Washington Post reports that of almost 900,000 ballots cast in early voting, over 52 percent were for Democrats, a substantial boost over the last primary election in 2014.

The question that looms for Republicans is this: will Texas turn blue? Is it going to become another California? Republicans are sounding alarms. Texas Senator John Cornyn says it would be “malpractice” not to ramp up Republican efforts to ensure turnout in November.

But Texas may not even be the most pivotal race, at least right now. That distinction is reserved for something else. Another race for a congressional seat is already underway and receiving scads of national attention, namely, a special election outside of Pittsburgh, where former Marine Conor Lamb is trying to overcome Republican Rick Saccone. The seat opened up when Republican Tim Murphy, who was staunchly anti-abortion, turned out to have instructed his mistress to get an abortion. Murphy resigned. Now Lamb is waging a no-holds-barred campaign to defeat his Republican opponent. On Tuesday he campaigned with former vice-president Joe Biden, though he makes a point of saying that he won’t vote for Nancy Pelosi to lead the House Democrats. But the GOP is also pulling out the stops, trying to tie him to Pelosi. A Republican loss would be an embarrassment. It would be a humiliation. Trump won big in the 18th District, which has voted Republican for some time.

So the national GOP is pouring millions into the race and President Trump plans to make a campaign stop for Saccone. If the GOP loses the seat, it will further erode confidence among congressional Republicans that sticking with Trump will help ensure their political longevity. Expect Trump, however, to disclaim all responsibility. After Roy Moore lost the special Senate race in Alabama, he even scrubbed some of his tweets that had supported him. But if Saccone wins, he can expect a visit to the White House, where he will be feted like a conquering hero, though Trump will most likely claim the credit for his victory. But a loss? Once is pardonable. Twice starts to look like carelessness or worse.

The wild card, as always, is Trump. Is what’s good for Trump bad for the GOP? His bluff and bombast have overjoyed the base but come at the cost of alienating independent, swing voters who tend to decide elections.

Another unpredictable element could be Trump’s embrace of tariffs, which he claims will rejuvenate the steel and aluminum industry. All along Trump has in fact claimed that he, and he alone, can revive the mills that used to dot the landscape in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Whether or not his tariff program helps Saccone over the electoral hurdle in this special election could become a telling data point. If Texas and Pennsylvania go big for the Democrats, then the GOP won’t worry about malpractice. It will be on red alert.

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