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Conor Lamb Declares Victory in Pennsylvania Special Election; Interview with DNC Chairman Tom Perez. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired March 14, 2018 - 8:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: -- 8:00 in the east. We do have some special election results. Democrat Conor Lamb declaring victory in the razor tight House race in Pennsylvania. Lamb performing strongly in the state's 18th congressional district which Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points. Earlier on NEW DAY Lamb told us how he's feeling this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONOR LAMB, (D) PENNSYLVANIA HOUSE CANDIDATE: I was at a lot of polling places yesterday with cars parked outside of them that had President Trump's bumper sticker on them. So he's a popular person here. But I think that what happens when you campaign in real life as much as possible is that those divisions go away. Everyone gave me a fair shake. And I know that there are people that voted for the president who also voted for me, and I thank them for hearing me out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Lamb leads by less than 700 votes. It is such a slim margin that CNN will not call this race at the moment, but if the margin stands this improbable upset in a deep red district could spell trouble for Republicans in the 2018 midterms.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Also we are bracing for more shakeups at the White House. President Trump signaling he could be ready to dismiss more senior officials after abruptly firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Who else might the president fire this week? Let's begin our coverage with Alex Marquardt live in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Alex?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris. Riveting night of political drama here in the Pennsylvania 18th. There are new numbers this morning that you just touched on there. We have Conor Lamb up by 0.2 percent, that's 641 votes. At this point there are still votes to be counted but it would be a very long shot for Saccone to pull this out. But he does still have some recourse. He has said that there will be no decision made, there will be no concession made until all of the votes are in. The Lamb campaign however is very confident they have won. Listen to the candidate's remarks from last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAMB: It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it.

(APPLAUSE)

LAMB: Tonight we celebrate regaining our voice and our vote in the great business of governing this country we love.

RICK SACCONE, (R) PENNSYLVANIA HOUSE CANDIDATE: We're still fighting the fight. It's not over yet. We're going to fight all the way to the end. You know I never give up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARQUARDT: Now, the Saccone campaign does, as I mentioned, have some legal recourse. There's no automatic recount in the state of Pennsylvania for congressional races, but they can petition for one. Now, they are huddling with lawyers this morning. We understand -- the Saccone tells me that there are lawyers from Washington from the RNC, from the NRCC in town to advise them on what they can do, and they will be making a decision later today.

Why is this race so significant? Why have we been watching this so closely. Because people here on the ground, people in Washington have considered this a referendum on the Trump presidency. Trump won this district in 2016 by some 20 points. In the last two congressional races, 2014, 2016, the Democrats did not even field a candidate. Massive amounts of money spent here, some $10.7 million spent by outside Republican groups to prop up this Saccone campaign.

So as we're looking forward, however, despite this money, despite the symbolism, what it really may come down to is symbolism because the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decided that the congressional districts were so gerrymandered that they had to redraw the map. So looking forward to November, these two candidates could eventually be running in two different districts. Chris?

CUOMO: Alex on a cold morning in Pennsylvania giving us the cold hard facts. Thank you for being with us.

Joining us now is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez. Tom, good to see you.

TOM PEREZ, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Good morning, Chris, great to be with you.

CUOMO: So do you think Conor Lamb pulls this out? We know he declared victory. What's your take on the state of the decision in this election?

PEREZ: Conor is going to win. There aren't enough votes left for Saccone to catch up. And it's remarkable, a district that Trump won by 20 points. Conor won because he was fighting for the issues that people cared about. They were worried about their pensions in Greene County and elsewhere. There were worried about the opioid epidemic and they were wondering who is going to fight for them on this.

And I met Conor when I was at the Justice Department, Chris, and he is an authentic politician, he's an authentic leader. And just like Doug Jones, these are folks who are speaking to the kitchen table issues that people care about. That's why he won.

This shows Democrats can win everywhere. These were basically Obama- Trump voters who came back to the Democratic Party. And it shows we can win in every zip code as long as we organize. And that's why we're winning everywhere. Frankly, that's why we're winning everywhere. This is not an aberration. This is a trend. We won state special elections earlier this year, Kentucky, Wisconsin, New Hampshire.

CUOMO: The party has done better on the stateside. That's really important because those losses on the Democratic level all across the country led to redistricting efforts that made it harder for you guys to win congressional seats. That was a problem that was realized. Now we'll see if you can remedy it.

[08:05:07] Let's take one step backwards, though. What was the calculation that led to the party identifying this seat as one you could win despite the 20-point lead by Trump over Clinton in it? Why would you have ever picked this seat to make a challenge.

PEREZ: I'll tell you, Chris, one of the top lessons I've learned over the last year in this job is that we can win everywhere. When we invested early in Alabama, people thought, frankly, that it was a fool's errand. I thought, no, it's not. We can organize everywhere. When you field good candidates, when you organize everywhere, and when you speak to the issues that keep people up at night, that's how you win. And that's exactly what we did in Alabama. That's what we did in places like Oklahoma, Kentucky, and elsewhere. And you saw in Pennsylvania a district that Donald Trump won by 20 points. We didn't even compete there the last two cycles.

CUOMO: That's why I asked about identifying the race because Democrats didn't put up a challenger in the last two cycles.

PEREZ: What's interesting about that is you look at the margin of victory in Pennsylvania in the 2016 election, and district 18, the margin of victory for Trump was something like 70,000 votes which exceeded the margin of victory in the state. It really illustrates that we have to flood the zone. We have to field candidates everywhere. And when we don't do that, that's a shame-on-us moment. We've learned from that mistake. That's how we won Virginia. We fielded candidates everywhere. And we're doing this across the country. It's not just candidates, it's good candidates. And we're organizing. That's why we're back.

CUOMO: And a different type of candidate. Conor Lamb is not a cookie cutter Democrat. He checks boxes that ordinarily Democrats don't, whether it's being pro-life, gun policy, how he feels about the leadership in the party in Congress. Is this a nod toward a new move in this country to pick candidates who may not meet all the traditional criteria of Democrats but are competitive in the district where they're going to run?

PEREZ: Listen, I've always said, and I learned this from my former boss Ted Kennedy. We should never confuse unity with unanimity. I'm never asking people to agree with everything that I say or that our party might say. But unity understands, and this race really illustrates it, that what we agree on far exceeds what our differences are. Conor Lamb talked about his grandfather and how he was a Democrat because it was the party of FDR, it was the party that fought for the labor movement and working families and for good pensions and good wages and good health care. And that's how Conor Lamb won because Donald Trump is fighting to take away people's health care. Donald Trump has had an opportunity to help the mine workers down there to get access to their pensions and he hasn't done it. Mitch McConnell hasn't done it. These workers knew that.

We can win everywhere. Whoever says you have to either compete for white working class voters or for communities of color, I categorically reject that false choice, because we've won in Alabama. We won here in Pennsylvania, a district that's 93 percent white. We helped elect people like the mayor of Atlanta, the mayor of Charlotte who are remarkable African-American women. We can win everywhere. We are winning everywhere. We're organizing everywhere and that's why Democrats are back.

CUOMO: Parties aside, it was refreshing to a lot of people to see someone mounting an insurgency in Conor Lamb, but not just going after the president and going after Republicans, but giving people something to vote for not just against. Tom Perez, if this win holds up, congratulations. Let's see what the party does next. Appreciate you being on the show.

PEREZ: Great to be with you, Chris.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: Moments ago Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania says the result in the 18th district should be a warning sign for the GOP.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLIE DENT, (R) PENNSYLVANIA: I think most Republicans realize we're running into a very serious head wind, hurricane-force wind. It's coming, and we have to be ready for it. Some of our members in the marginal districts, the swing districts, are better prepared for these fights frankly than some members in safer seats. And I'll tell you what, if you're a Republican member in a pretty safe seat like this one was, that's where I'd be nervous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Joining us now is CNN senior political commentator Rick Santorum. He is a former Pennsylvania senator and before that a congressman from that 18th congressional district. Great to see you, Rick.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Thank you. So good to be with you. CAMEROTA: Listen, you're the perfect person to talk to. How do you

see what happened? It appears at this hour that Conor Lamb holds this narrow victory.

SANTORUM: There's only a couple hundred votes left in Greene County to be counted, and that's not going to be enough on the raw totals here. There may be a recount. If there is a recount, again, 600 votes probably is what it's going to come down to. That's a lot to overcome in a recount. So it looks very good. I'd rather be in Conor Lamb's shoes that's Rick Saccone's shoes at this point.

[08:10:05] But this was a perfect storm for the Democrats. They had a very good candidate, a candidate I would remind you was not picked in a primary, but was picked by political pols who did a good job in matching someone for the district. He ran, as you mentioned, as a very moderate blue dog Democrat, someone who was historically fit with western Pennsylvania, blue collar labor Democrat. That's what Conor Lamb ran as.

He was a former marine, he was strong on guns. That is the kind of guy that used to get elected in western Pennsylvania and in fact most of Pennsylvania that the Democratic Party doesn't nominate anymore and doesn't run, certainly doesn't run for statewide or national office.

And so if there's a lesson learned, it's to fit the candidate for the district. And Conor fit that district. Secondly, look, I think Charlie is right, there was a headwind out there. There's no question that Donald Trump is creating some problems across this country.

I would add one other thing, to point to Congress. The signature issue that the Republicans ran on that motivated the Republican base for the last four elections was to repeal and replace Obama. And not only did they fail last year doing it, but they've given up doing it, and in fact they're poised here in the next couple weeks to actually pass a bailout of Obamacare.

So that is a huge deflator of the base. And if you look at what happened in this race, everyone talked about it through the entire course, the intensity on the Democratic side was 20 points higher than on the Republican side. Why? Because Republicans are deflated because Republicans aren't delivering on what they said they were going to do, and you have the excitement caused by Donald Trump and frankly a lot of the personal things that he's doing that energizes the other side.

CAMEROTA: It's very interesting that both you and Charlie Dent are using this hurricane lingo. You say it was a perfect storm to work for the Democrats. He says that the Republicans are facing in the midterms hurricane-force winds. So how nervous are you as a Republican?

SANTORUM: Well, I think it just -- it's more imperative on the Republicans to actually try to get something done here in the Congress to show that they're in touch with the concerns of people out there across America, that the inaction on just about everything other than taxes -- I think most people will find the tax reductions to be a favorable thing, but, look, it also raised the deficit. And people are concerned about that, particularly in districts like this which are heavily on seniors. Conor Lamb really hit this point very, very hard, about the threat to potential cuts in senior programs because of the increasing deficit.

So in districts like in Pennsylvania, it's the second oldest state in the country per capita-wise, those issues are going to resonate a little bit more. So again you need to find answers in Washington that are going to connect with voters. And whether it's an infrastructure bill or more importantly whether it's a health care bill, something like that that's going to say, look, we understand the problems out there, we're going to do things to address it and we're going to deliver on our promises, you're going to have a lot of problems come November.

CAMEROTA: Very quickly. President Trump, as you know, campaigned for Rick Saccone as he did weeks ago for Roy Moore. Should President Trump keep campaigning for Republicans?

SANTORUM: I think if you look at a couple things. Every poll I was tracking and I was checking daily was showing that Conor Lamb was up four or five points for the last couple weeks of this campaign and he ended up winning by 0.2. I don't think there's any question that, again, intensity, that the president coming the weekend before increased intensity among Republicans and caused that race to close at the end.

The problem was created in part by the intensity driven by Trump overall, but he was able personally to go out and raise the Republican intensity to turn out a little bit more vote and close the gap. If you look at the absentee ballots that were submitted before the Trump visit, Conor Lamb was running ahead of where he ran on Election Day. And I think that just goes to show you, yes, Trump can go in and energize, but he can't do that in 50 congressional districts next November, and he's not going to be effective in that way.

They have to do something to raise Republican intensity here between now and Election Day, and that means they've got to start delivering on your promises.

CAMEROTA: Rick Santorum, thank you very much for the perspective.

SANTORUM: You bet. Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Chris?

CUOMO: The White House seems to have a revolving door and it keeps spinning. Who is next to go in Trump's firing line? We discuss next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:18:16] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's abrupt firing via Twitter yesterday may be only the beginning of more top officials being dismissed.

Joining us our CNN political director David Chalian and CNN politics reporter and editor at large, Chris Cillizza.

Great to see you, guys.

David Chalian, let's talk first about Rex Tillerson and what's going to happen with Mike Pompeo taking over as secretary of state. So, this is the opposite, right, of a team of rivals. This is a team of clones or a team of parrots or whatever you want to call it that is aligned with President Trump's world view.

So, what does that mean going forward for the next year?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS DIRECTOR: Right, I don't know that it's parrots. It's certainly apparent that the president is putting together a year two team that is much more inclined to allow him, the president, pursue his basic instincts on things, his gut level approach to things. Whereas team year one there were a bunch of people he put into place that sort of I think were trying to be boundaries that he would bump into. And instead now, he wants to go ahead with his gut on things, whether it's foreign policy or some domestic policy and not be encumbered by people trying to rein him in in some way.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: What's the plus-minus on the move, Chris?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: The plus is he gets someone much more in line with his world view, right? Tillerson, I think Donald Trump liked the idea of Rex Tillerson, Exxon chairman, titan of industry, a guy no one saw coming, you know, sort of an outsider. I think he liked the idea of him, but the reality of Tillerson, even from the beginning, was clearly not what Donald Trump imagined. They clashed repeatedly.

[08:20:01] Tillerson seemed to think he had his own portfolio, sort of his own space to operate in. Trump didn't view it that way.

So, the plus is you get someone who broadly speaking echoes what your beliefs are as relates to foreign policy and diplomacy.

The minus is you fired, if not your top cabinet official, certainly one of your top three cabinet officials via Twitter and promising more first to come with people like your chief of staff, your national security adviser, your Veterans Administration, you know? I mean, there's a lot of turmoil and chaos, and I think Donald Trump welcomes that, likes it, believes he thrives in it.

I just don't think everyone likes it and believes they thrive in it. I think it makes it hard to do the work -- the everyday work of the government and the long-term strategic planning that's required to get a president who is, at best, in the low 40s, into a better place politically speaking before November or else you're going to see more results like Pennsylvania 18. If you see more results like Pennsylvania 18, assuming that Conor Lamb wins, then Democrats are winning back the House.

CAMEROTA: Here is the list according to our reporting of who may be on the chopping block. So, there's David Shulkin, V.A. Secretary, Jeff Sessions, of course, we've been talking about for a long time, attorney general, H.R. McMaster, national security adviser, John Kelly, as we know, has been in the crosshairs for some time, White House chief of staff, Ryan Zinke, interior secretary.

So, David, that's a long laundry list.

CHALIAN: It is. Maybe Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt might be able to breathe a little easier on that list. But you're right, they've been all in hot water with the president at various times. And when he's in this kind of mood and this kind of public display as Chris was describing of sort of that chaotic nature that he likes to create, you wouldn't feel very comfortable being any one of those people that you just --

CUOMO: Shulkin has to be the low fruit, right? He's an Obama holdover and he seems to have gotten caught in terms of what he said and what is true with his travel.

(CROSSTALK)

CHALIAN: That and the Ben Carson headlines have been a disaster for the president as well.

CUOMO: But could he get rid of Ben Carson?

CHALIAN: He can get rid of anyone he wants. Yes, he could, and I wouldn't put it past him.

CILLIZZA: He fired Rex Tillerson via Twitter, Chris.

CUOMO: The shut-up and dribble crowd at Fox say that's not true, that it happened on Friday, he knew, they just didn't know when --

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA: He knew something was coming.

CUOMO: Well, he was a little vague on it. His undersecretary said they got completely --

(CROSSTALK)

CAMEROTA: I just want to read it because it's so fascinating.

Secretary Tillerson had every intention of remaining because of the progress he made on national security issues. He established and enjoyed relationships with his counterparts. He will miss his colleagues and enjoyed working together with the Department of Defense in an uncommonly robust relationship.

That's not somebody who knew it was coming.

CUOMO: Well, that shows he didn't want to leave, but in terms of timing when he was told, what do you have, Chalian?

CHALIAN: No, I mean, I think what we understand is that the White House and chief of staff John Kelly made it clear to Tillerson when he was over in Africa at the end of last week that the gig was up and that the president was sort of done with him. And then I don't think the secretary was out on a tweet on Tuesday morning at 8:45, but I think he was aware that his time in the administration had come to an end.

That's all semantics, guys. And we should note it is not tenable for a president of the United States to have a secretary of state going around the world on a different page from him. No president of the United States should be -- have that much daylight between himself and the secretary of state. So, that really is a relationship that needs to be fully aligned and this one hasn't been for months.

CUOMO: All right. I don't think you can deny a president your cabinet. They should pick who they want. But how you fire people matters. This inability is going to breathe disloyalty in-house. I don't know what it means to his base, and frankly, I don't care.

This is about what continuity he has in terms of the loyalty to him, how strong people are in their positions, Chris, and also your operational continuity.

CILLIZZA: That's right. I mean --

CUOMO: Now, this may be a better fit for him with Pompeo, this is new leadership, you'll have to redo who is at the top, redo the priorities. It slows things down.

CILLIZZA: There's people that have to be confirmed. You don't get to say, OK, you're this, you're that. OK, everybody, let's get together and let's do it.

They have to be confirmed by the Senate. That takes some time.

I just think turmoil and constant churn is not typically how successful operations, whether that's political or otherwise, operate. You see -- take sports. The San Antonio Spurs are successful for a lot of reasons, but one of which is the continuity of the fact that Gregg Popovich has been the coach for a very long time.

CUOMO: Basketball.

[08:25:01] CILLIZZA: There is a steadiness that exists there. Look across any very successful sports team, for the most part you'll see a continuity of management and leadership.

It's hard when everyone is kind of doing the -- to make sure they're not the next guy or woman to be let go.

And when you have a president of the United States who not only fires the secretary of state in -- let's just say in less-than-ideal circumstances, then how do you not feel -- if you're Betsy DeVos, Shulkin, Carson, Zinke, Kelly, McMaster -- I mean, I left people out -- but how do you not get distracted by that day in, day out, when you're trying to do the operational maintenance and management of government? You wouldn't be a human if that didn't happen. CAMEROTA: I'd just tell them to keep checking the president's Twitter

feed if they need to know their status.

CILLIZZA: That's a good way to run the government.

CAMEROTA: David, Pennsylvania's special election. What does this tell you that Conor Lamb appears to be at this hour the winner?

CHALIAN: Yes, he's poised here for a major upset when every last vote is counted in a district that Trump won by 20 points, as we've been saying. This is a huge deal. I know that the Republicans will do their darndest to say, our candidate wasn't so great, they had a great candidate. This is true.

But there are going to be two big conversations that emerge from these results. One, the worrisome conversation inside Republican ranks, just how big is this Democratic wave we're facing in November and what am I going to do to fortify myself, to try to make sure I'm not wiped out by it? Is it possible to not be wiped out by it? That's a conversation on the Republican side.

On the Democratic side, there's going to be a whole conversation about -- the path forward for the party, is it through people like Conor Lamb? Can we not be completely identified with identity politics and look more for people who do fit their districts?

There's going to be an internal battle inside the Democratic Party as it emerges and tries to find its leader for 2020, and the results last night is going to be the beginning of that conversation for that party.

CAMEROTA: OK. Gentlemen, Chris Cillizza, David Chalian, thank you very much.

CILLIZZA: Sure.

CAMEROTA: Former Trump adviser Roger Stone denies that he had any contact with WikiLeaks before the stolen e-mails were leaked. But former Trump associate Sam Nunberg tells a different story. He joins us live, next.

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