GOP leaders issue stern warning to lawmakers in wake of Pennsylvania special election

Republican leaders are delivering a stern warning to their incumbent lawmakers in the wake of the Pennsylvania special election - it's time to get to work and run a real campaign.

Speaker Paul Ryan, in a meeting with House Republicans Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill, reportedly warned his party that Democratic enthusiasm "is real and last night should serve as a wake-up call," according to a source familiar with Ryan's comments to lawmakers.

He also told members "to get to work, be prepared, and not get caught off guard."

The strong words follow a tough night for the GOP.

The results in the Pennsylvania 18th Congressional District special election remain too close to call.

However, Democrat Conor Lamb leads by 627 votes against GOP opponent Rick Saccone in a district Trump handily won in 2016.

In order to narrow the margin of votes, Lamb not only had to increase Democratic turnout, he had to persuade some Trump voters to support him. He also outpaced former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's performance across the board in the region, doing 10 percentage points better than the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.

That turnout and enthusiasm is part of what is driving GOP fears a blue wave may sweep the country in November and give Democrats control of the House.

And Democrats appeared to fire a warning shot to GOP incumbents.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put out a statement noting: "Republicans just lost a Trump +20 district, and the majority of targeted Republicans should seriously question their reelection prospects."

National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Rep. Steve Stivers told GOP lawmakers at their meeting that "you need to run a real race," according to a source familiar with his remarks.

He also warned them not to get outraised and outspent, to define themselves, and then define their opponent.

House Republicans seemed to deflect the warning.

The political environment is seen as a tough one for the GOP. Trump's approval ratings are low - 39 percent in the latest Gallup poll.

Plus, history is against them. The president's party historically loses seats in the next midterm election.

"In this environment, everybody's got to be better than before," a GOP strategist with knowledge of congressional campaign planning told ABC News.

The source added: "If you needed last night, and if you're on planet earth for the last year and a half and you haven't concluded until last night that this is a tough environment for Republicans, I'm pretty worried about you."

In 2016, a total of 38 Republican lawmakers won their races by less than 15 percentage points.

If Democrats can replicate Pennsylvania's results in enough House races across the county, it could give them the 24 seats they need to retake control of the House.

Lamb's performance lends support to the Democrats' case that their candidates can run and win in any House district in the country, even the reddest ones, and Republicans should be worried.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made that point in a statement on Tuesday night.

"There are more than one hundred districts more favorable for Democrats than this one and we look forward to competing hard in every single one," DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján said in a statement.

"These results should terrify Republicans," he said.

More than $10.6 million went into the effort to support Saccone. Trump came into the district the final weekend to campaign for him, Donald Trump Jr. was there on Monday and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned with him last month.

But the closeness of the race indicates that some the GOP's most potent campaign tools - money, the president, their tax cut message, and their attempt to tie Lamb to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi - didn't perform as the party expected.

Granted the results of special elections can be hard to apply to the November contests. They are a snapshot in time and, in the current political environment, things can and do change fast.

"I think there's lots of factors and I think it'd be wrong to deny that a midterm, and this is while it's a special, it's a midterm, is harder for the party that's in power in the White House," Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of South Dakota, who is running for Senate this year, told ABC News. "You've got the natural headwinds of being in power."

Still, the GOP strategist said their tactic of using Pelosi against Democratic candidates and promoting the Republicans' tax cut won't change. Ryan, during the meeting with fellow Republicans, also emphasized the importance of continuing to sell tax reform, according to a source close to him.

As of Wednesday morning, all absentee votes had been counted but there is an unknown number of provisional ballots to be counted from all four counties that make up the district.

While state law stipulates that an automatic recount is triggered when the margin in a statewide race is less than half a percentage point, the rules for a special election in a congressional district remain unclear.

"We're absolutely not conceding. We're waiting on provisional ballots. We're not ruling out a recount or other further legal action," Matt Gorman, spokesman for the NRCC, told ABC News.

GOP lawyers are planning a series of legal maneuvers that are designed to set the stage for a recount and other court challenges, according to a source familiar with the planning. They plan to seek a court order demanding that all ballots and machines used in the district are impounded under lock and key.

In the lead up to the election, Republicans tried to de-nationalize the race and make it about their candidate, claiming Saccone was a bad campaigner who couldn't fundraise or set up a strong operation while Lamb was a stellar candidate.

They also claim the close contest on Tuesday night was better than they expected to do.

"It's laughable that I read we exceeded expectations," the GOP strategist said. "You win or you lose. There is no positive spin on losing ever. Period. End of discussion."

ABC News' John Parkinson, Ben Siegel, Rick Klein, MaryAlice Parks, John Verhovek, and Shushannah Walshe contributed to this report.

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