SOUTH STRABANE TOWNSHIP, Pa. — When Tim O’Neal won the May special election in this part of Pennsylvania in the state legislature, he was the first Republican to represent this area southwest of Pittsburgh since Ronald Reagan was president and "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne" were the two top-rated television shows in America.

That did not deter the former Army infantry captain, who earned a Bronze Star for his valor in Afghanistan, from running for the seat. Nor was he deterred by the trouncing, just weeks before, that Democrat Conor Lamb administered to Republican Rick Saccone in the local congressional race.

“I basically realized the opportunity to serve again. I've been relatively successful in my career, but if anything's missing, it was the desire to serve, the desire to give back. And I realized the opportunity to do that through this role,” he said.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Tim O'Neal is pictured with his family.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Tim O'Neal is pictured with his family. (Photo courtesy of Salena Zito)

O’Neal will try to defend his seat in November in a rematch with Democrat Clark Mitchell Jr.

If O'Neal could win this seat in a special election, and if he can hang on in this down-ballot race, maybe the blue wave visible in the 2017 Virginia elections and in recent special elections will meet a countervailing force.

“The voters in the district were going through what was a little bit of election voter fatigue," O'Neal said. "But I also think the results of my election in particular show that when it really comes down it to on the ground, voters don't care about the national headlines. They care about the candidates."

“Most of the things that I ran on are really issues facing our community. Between the opioid epidemic and the crime that comes along with it, as well as infrastructure, issues in blight throughout our community,” he said. “Ultimately, just coming from really a bipartisan, common-sense standpoint,” he said, something that resonated with the voters in the district.

"I didn't do this to launch my political dynasty. It's really about public service for me. So, I think that's connected me well with the community through that endeavor.”

Pennsylvania state Rep. Tim O'Neal (pictured right), a Republican, talks to people at an event. O'Neal is trying to defend his seat against Clark Mitchell Jr., his Democratic opponent, in November.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Tim O'Neal (pictured right), a Republican, talks to people at an event. O'Neal is trying to defend his seat against Clark Mitchell Jr., his Democratic opponent, in November. (Photo courtesy of Salena Zito)

O’Neal hasn’t stopped personally door-knocking since he won in May: “I will be doing it every day. I want to hear and listen to the cares and concerns of the community; there is no better way to do that than this.”

There's a similar story across the country. In June, California Republican Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang replaced state Sen. Josh Newman in a recall vote in which two-thirds of the voters rejected him over his support of vehicle fees and a fuel tax for road repairs.

Chang (who lost to Newman previously in 2016 by less than 3,000 votes) robbed California Democrats of a two-thirds supermajority. She said that in politics, you have to understand what are the best interests of the district that you represent. “And that means staying in tune and listening to them,” she said.

And in Texas last month, a GOP state legislative supermajority was nearly guaranteed to be held when yet another Republican candidate for state office beat back expectations, history, and the much ballyhooed blue-wave when Pete Flores stunned Texas Democrats after he beat a former congressman by 6 points in a district Hillary Clinton won by 12 percentage points in 2016.

So, what does this mean? All three down-ballot races were expected to stay in the hands of Democrats in a year that was supposed to be remarkable for Democrats. Two of those races (Pennsylvania and Texas) are located in states that are being targeted by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a Democratic group backed by former President Barack Obama and led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Democrats have been feeling good about their prospects in regaining the hundreds of seats they lost down-ballot since 2009. The Virginia state legislative landslide that occurred last year gave them the narrative and the ability to raise millions of dollars to win back these seats and/or chambers ahead of the 2020 census. The goal? Ensure Democratic majorities ahead of redrawing partisan election maps for the following year.

The stories of O’Neal, Chang, and Flores tell us that there may be some brakes on that effort.

Either way, the most important seats a party holds aren't always the most high-profile: Not only do these elected officials impact your lives far more intimately in your community than your member of Congress, but most also hold the key to who will draw the lines in their state for those congressional seats.

Which is why both the Democrats and the Republicans are fighting hard to hold or gain these seats back, and why, with all of the star power and money the Democrats have put into this effort, they find themselves wondering why they lost three seats that should have been theirs.