WASHINGTON -- The most dangerous outcome for Republicans in Tuesday's special House election is not the prospect of a Democrat taking over one of their seats.
It was the shrugging off by voters of the party's biggest legislative achievement: the tax cut measure that Republicans hoped would be their major campaign message as they head toward a turbulent midterm election.
Though the popularity of Trump's tax plan has grown since it was passed last year, it seemed to have stalled as an election issue in Pennsylvania, leading Republicans to shift away from it late in the campaign in search of another topic to energize supporters of state legislator Rick Saccone.
"It looks like it just petered out," pollster Patrick Murray of the nonpartisan Monmouth University Polling Institute said of the tax plan's impact on the election.
As they pondered whether Saccone or Democrat Conor Lamb would ultimately win in a district Trump seized by almost 20 percentage points -- the two were essentially tied awaiting the counting of additional ballots -- Republicans chose to blame their candidate rather than question the impact of the issue that is almost certain to be the GOP's biggest calling card as it tries to retain control of Congress in November.
"Campaigns and candidates matter," said Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect GOP House members.
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Gorman brushed aside the idea that tax cuts were less politically potent than hoped, noting that candidates are responsible for defining opponents, raising sufficient money and telling an empathetic story -- elements that Republicans in Washington and Pennsylvania have cited as deficiencies in Saccone's campaign.
Asked whether he was blaming the messenger over the message, Gorman replied, "If you can't get your message out, then you don't have a message."
The election in the Pittsburgh area, to replace a Republican incumbent who resigned in disgrace, was of limited utility; the district has already been gutted in a redrawing of congressional lines by the state Supreme Court, so the winner will have to run elsewhere in November.
But coming in the spring of an election year that already appears to be a stiff climb for Republicans, the race was being watched for what it would say about the effect of a nationally unpopular president whose presence in the White House has fanned unprecedented levels of Democratic enthusiasm.