If Donald Trump is worried about Democrats using an upset victory in Pennsylvania as a blueprint for winning big in the midterms, he didn’t let on.
Trump broke his silence on the election at a private fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley Wednesday night, telling a crowd of donors that Lamb had run “a pretty smart race, actually,” according to an audio recording of the remarks obtained by The Atlantic. Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Republican Rick Saccone in a district Trump won by nearly 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, according to audio of the event shared with 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.’”
Later on, he stressed Lamb’s appeal to many blue-collar conservatives, saying, “But I guess when you’re running in a certain area, that’s probably a good tactic.”
Trump had been unusually silent about the race on Wednesday, a departure from past elections Republicans have lost during his time as president. After Republican Ed Gillespie lost his gubernatorial bid in Virginia to Ralph Northam, a Democrat, Trump was quick to claim that Gillespie “did not embrace me or what I stand for.” And when Republican Roy Moore lost to a Democrat, Doug Jones, in a controversial Alabama Senate race, he said he “originally” knew that Moore would “not be able to win the general election.”
Yet the day after Saccone lost by a razor-thin margin against Lamb, a square-jawed Marine veteran who was careful not to make anti-Trumpism the central tenet of his campaign, Trump’s Twitter feed was empty of any mentions of the race. The president did return to one familiar self-congratulatory mode: He argued at the Hawley fundraiser that his last-minute rally for Saccone on Saturday in Moon Township had been an overall success, saying that it boosted the candidate’s vote total.
“We had an interesting time because we lifted [Saccone] seven points up. That’s a lot,” Trump said. “And I was up 22 points, and we lifted seven, and seven normally would be enough, but we’ll see how it all comes out. It’s, like, virtually a tie.” (It was not exactly clear what Trump was basing his conclusion of a seven-point boost on.)
He also attempted to downplay the race’s significance. “It’s actually interesting, because it’s only a congressman for five months,” Trump said, referring to the fact that the district will likely be redrawn ahead of the midterm elections in November. “I don’t know about that one, Josh. It was a lot of work for five months.”
But Trump then seemed to crack a joke at Saccone’s expense, touting Hawley as a strong challenger to Democrat Claire McCaskill. “Because you do need the right candidate, have you heard about that?” Trump said. The crowd erupted in laughter. “You do need the right candidate.” He was alluding, perhaps, to widespread criticism in Republican circles that Saccone lacked charisma and was a lackluster fundraiser.
Trump may have attributed Lamb’s success to the seemingly conservative message in his campaign, but he also cautioned that Lamb’s party affiliation would take priority in Washington, despite his pledge not to back Pelosi for speaker. “The bottom line is when he votes, he’s going to vote with Nancy Pelosi. And he’s gonna vote with Schumer,” Trump said. “And that’s what’s gonna happen, and there’s nothing he can do about it. So it doesn’t matter what he feels, it doesn’t matter.”