Base turns:

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBERT COSTA

Nail-biter in GOP bas­tion shows a sour­ing on Trump­ism.

The neck-and-neck re­sult in Tues­day’s spe­cial con­gres­sional elec­tion in a re­li­ably Repub­li­can Penn­syl­va­nia district re­vealed that the ap­petite for Pres­i­dent Trump’s style of pol­i­tics may have its lim­its in the land of shut­tered steel mills and coal mines that has been the core of his sup­port base.

The pres­i­dent went all in for Repub­li­can can­di­date Rick Sac­cone, a seem­ingly safe bet in a district Trump had car­ried by 20 per­cent­age points in 2016.

Trump vis­ited there twice in re­cent weeks. He dis­patched his el­dest son. He sent top White House aides. Yet, with all that po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal on the line, the pres­i­dent watched his fa­vored can­di­date fin­ish, in ef­fect, in a tie in what should have been an easy win.

The ra­zor-thin vote count — three months af­ter Democrats picked up a U.S. Se­nate seat in deeply con­ser­va­tive Alabama and com­ing on a whirl­wind day when Trump tried to wran­gle con­trol of his ad­min­is­tra­tion by oust­ing his sec­re­tary of state — left Repub­li­cans feel­ing jit­tery just months ahead of the midterm elec­tions.

And, with Demo­crat Conor Lamb com­ing close to a once un­think­able vic­tory, other Democrats run­ning this fall in Trumpfriendly dis­tricts may find a for­mula to boost their hopes of re­tak­ing the House.

“We should be able to elect a box of ham­mers in this district. If we’re los­ing here, you can bet there is a Demo­cratic wave com­ing,” said vet­eran Repub­li­can con­sul­tant Mike Mur­phy, a Trump critic.

Un­cer­tainty now per­vades the party that Trump leads.

Tues­day’s ef­fec­tive tie, com­ing in the after­math of Trump’s ag­gres­sive push for steel and alu­minum tar­iffs that were backed by both Penn­syl­va­nia can­di­dates, sug­gests the power of the pres­i­dent’s hard-line trade stance to rally his vot­ers is no longer a given.

The fail­ure to se­cure an out­right win also adds to an aura of neg­a­tiv­ity sur­round­ing the pres­i­dent. Po­lit­i­cal storms ac­cu­mu­late seem­ingly by the hour, from the exit of main­stream fig­ures inside the West Wing to the drip-drip de­vel­op­ments in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion to new rev­e­la­tions in the saga of a $130,000 hush agree­ment be­tween a porn star and the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal lawyer.

Lamb’s vote to­tal wasn’t a spo­radic burst of lib­eral en­ergy in a blue state where faded Obama stick­ers still cover bumpers and the Trump re­sis­tance thrives. It was a sign of weak­ness in the beat­ing heart of Trump’s po­lit­i­cal base — a place where red “Make Amer­ica Great Again” caps were worn proudly through­out the last pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and where pas­sion for the eco­nomic pro­tec­tion­ism that Trump has made his creed ri­vals the pas­sion for the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

But Lamb, a 33-year-old re­tired Ma­rine and at­tor­ney with a chis­eled jaw and cen­trist pitch, was able to peel away vot­ers from Sac­cone, 60, a Repub­li­can state law­maker, in Penn­syl­va­nia’s 18th Con­gres­sional District.

Trump’s tar­iff plan, his rau­cous rally in the district over the week­end, the Repub­li­can-au­thored tax law, the bliz­zard of tele­vi­sion ads from con­ser­va­tive groups link­ing Lamb to House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the visit by Don­ald Trump Jr. to a candy-mak­ing fa­cil­ity on Mon­day — none of it was enough to se­cure a vic­tory Tues­day night for Sac­cone, whom Repub­li­can and White House of­fi­cials have snidely de­scribed as “Mr. Generic Repub­li­can.”

To Trump al­lies, the poor show­ing Tues­day was not a re­flec­tion on the pres­i­dent, but in­stead a re­minder that the GOP should be em­brac­ing can­di­dates who em­u­late the un­scripted for­mer re­al­ity TV star in the Oval Of­fice.

“You can’t run a stan­dard cam­paign,” for­mer Trump cam­paign ad­viser Ed Brookover vented. “These kind of reg­u­lar, Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment cam­paigns, run­ning as a con­ser­va­tive, isn’t go­ing to work.”

The po­ten­tial break­down could be a rup­ture point in the Trump-Repub­li­can re­la­tion­ship that has so far held to­gether.

For months, con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans have looked on un­easily as the White House has erupted with ten­sions and as Trump has fumed at foes and friends on Twit­ter and else­where. They have wor­ried that the pres­i­dent and their party seemed alarm­ingly adrift, lurch­ing be­tween one pol­icy fight or per­son­nel drama to an­other without much leg­is­lat­ing or po­lit­i­cal com­mand.

Nev­er­the­less, most Repub­li­cans have hes­i­tated to worry too much, at least pub­licly, since the pres­i­dent ap­peared in polls to have a solid grip on his core vot­ers in ar­eas such as Pitts­burgh’s south­ern sub­urbs — the vot­ers Repub­li­cans are count­ing on to turn out in droves this fall and stave off a Demo­cratic takeover. He had over­seen the con­fir­ma­tion of Supreme Court Jus­tice Neil M. Gor­such and signed the sweep­ing tax law that they had craved, which re­as­sured them along the way.

It was a bar­gain be­tween Repub­li­cans and an un­con­ven­tional pres­i­dent to move for­ward armin-arm to­ward the Novem­ber elec­tions, even if both sides knew the re­la­tion­ship was fraught. Trump may have been vex­ing, but he was nec­es­sary for the party’s chances. Sac­cone, who wrapped him­self po­lit­i­cally around Trump in the Penn­syl­va­nia con­test, was a case study in the sur­vival strat­egy.

That bar­gain be­gan to fray as the re­turns came in Tues­day night and the race in that over­whelm­ingly GOP district grew tight. Repub­li­cans watched with con­cern — in be­tween fren­zied ca­ble-news up­dates on Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s volatile de­par­ture — as it be­came clear that a Demo­crat was hold­ing his own in the mid­dle of Trump coun­try.

While Repub­li­cans still feel steady about much of their ar­gu­ment to vot­ers this fall — the stock mar­ket has made gains amid var­i­ous bumps over the past year and the lat­est jobs re­port was strong — they no longer have con­fi­dence that the tax cut and the state of the econ­omy alone can lift them to vic­tory if Trump’s po­lit­i­cal brand is erod­ing in the places that had been rock solid.

And if Trump is no longer able to be counted on to yank a Repub­li­can to vic­tory in this cor­ner of Penn­syl­va­nia, where will he? In the com­ing months, some Repub­li­can strate­gists say they ex­pect vul­ner­a­ble GOP can­di­dates to fig­ure out how to de­fine their can­di­da­cies in lo­cal and per­sonal terms.

“Ev­ery­body will run for their district. They won’t nec­es­sar­ily run away from Trump but em­pha­size the parts of the Trump pres­i­dency that have been wins for the whole party — taxes, reg­u­la­tory re­form, those kind of is­sues rather than de­fend­ing ev­ery piece of it,” said for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia con­gress­man Bob Walker (R).

Democrats, mean­while, af­ter stum­bling in sev­eral elec­tions last year and see­ing anti-Trump lib­er­als dom­i­nate their ranks, found them­selves ral­ly­ing be­hind Lamb, a pol­ished and de­cid­edly cen­trist can­di­date who said he is per­son­ally op­posed to abor­tion and averse to as­pects of gun con­trol.

Lamb of­ten echoed Trump’s views on trade, in ef­fect steal­ing back an is­sue that Democrats have used for decades to rally work­ing-class vot­ers. He raised more money than Sac­cone and deftly han­dled ques­tions about Pelosi, promis­ing to op­pose her in a lead­er­ship race. He as­so­ci­ated with Democrats like for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, who cam­paigned in the district.

“It’s that old, west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia con­ser­va­tive Demo­crat that Lamb was able to bring back,” said Pa­trick Cad­dell, a long­time Demo­cratic poll­ster.

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