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House Republicans try to calm GOP fears after apparent upset in Pennsylvania's Trump country

  • House Republican leaders downplay Democrat Conor Lamb's apparent win in Pennsylvania's pro-Trump 18th Congressional District.
  • The race has some warning signs for Republicans as they try to hold on to congressional majorities in November.
  • House Speaker Paul Ryan argues Lamb's performance will be difficult for Democrats to repeat.

As talk of a Democratic wave in November's midterm elections mounted Wednesday, House Republican leaders aimed to downplay an apparent Democratic win in a House district President Donald Trump won easily in 2016.

Speaking to reporters, House Speaker Paul Ryan argued the minority party could not repeat the performance from moderate candidate Conor Lamb, whom he contended ran on a "conservative agenda." House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers warned against making "sweeping predictions" from the result of the Pennsylvania 18th District special election. She said the country has not seen the full "momentum" from the GOP tax law passed in December.

Republicans have months before November to sharpen their message as they try to hold on to congressional majorities, and much can change before then. Still, the Pennsylvania election packs plenty of warning signs for House GOP incumbents and candidates — running not only in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 but also those areas Trump carried.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., right, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., right, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Among the potential concerns for the GOP:

  • Trump won the 18th District by about 20 percentage points in 2016. Former Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned amid a cloud of scandal last year, did not even face a Democratic challenger in re-election bids in 2014 and 2016.
  • Lamb outraised Republican Rick Saccone by a more than 4-to-1 margin. Outside Republican groups injected more than $10 million into the race, and it apparently failed to put Saccone over the top.
  • The GOP has cast its tax law and a strong economy as signature achievements to promote this year. After initially hammering Lamb for opposing the tax plan, the GOP backed off the message as it appeared not to resonate as strongly as other issues such as immigration.

The GOP leaders spoke after a Republican conference meeting Wednesday morning, during which Ryan was set to say that the race should serve as a wake-up call, according to NBC News. He was expected to tell his caucus not to get caught off guard by Democratic enthusiasm but to still feel hopeful about the GOP agenda.

Perhaps sensing a tough election ahead in 2018, more than 20 Republican lawmakers have already announced plans to retire, not including those who chose to run for another office or took a job in the Trump administration. While primary elections have started, and many candidates have already declared to run, Democrats hope the Pennsylvania result may make other GOP lawmakers think twice about running in November.

Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan elections analysis site, rates 114 Republican seats as more competitive than Pennsylvania's 18th District, although candidates in some of those areas get a boost from running as an incumbent. In addition, Cook's Partisan Voter Index lists 17 open seats as more competitive than the Pennsylvania race. Democrats need to win 24 GOP seats in November to take a majority in the House.

Publicly, Republicans contended other Democrats who run in red areas will not have as easy a path as Lamb, a 33-year-old former prosecutor and Marine veteran who ran as a social moderate. On Wednesday, Ryan highlighted that numerous Democrats will have to face primary elections, which can force candidates to the left and potentially make them less appealing to independent or Republican voters.

"This is something that you're not going to see repeated, because they didn't have a primary. They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative, who ran against the minority leader [Nancy Pelosi], who ran on a conservative agenda," the Wisconsin Republican said.

Lamb is hardly the "conservative" Ryan casts him as. While he called for no new gun control laws, he supported stronger background checks. Lamb said he personally opposed abortion but agreed with the legal right to choose.

The Democrat also opposed the GOP tax law championed by Ryan, pledged to fight any GOP efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare spending, and promised to back labor unions. He refused to support Pelosi as Republicans spent millions trying to tie him to the nationally unpopular congresswoman from California.

Ryan said his party has a "great track record" and should focus on accomplishments such as its signature achievement of last year, the tax law passed in December. He added that his party's candidates will have difficulties if they face the fundraising gap that Saccone did in Pennsylvania.

"We need to execute, we need to get our message, and we need to make sure that our candidates aren't massively outraised and outspent on TV as was the case between these two candidates," Ryan said.

WATCH: Democrat Connor Lamb apparent winner in PA vote, says NBC