By Jim Ellis
March 9, 2018 — The PA-18 special election will be decided on March 13, falling between the Texas primary this past Tuesday and the Illinois state primary on March 20. And, as the two candidates, Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Canonsburg) and Democratic former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb, head for the finish line, late polling suggests this contest is a pure turnout battle.The current 18th District lies in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, encompassing a portion of Pittsburgh. The district contains parts of four different counties: Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, and Greene.
Though this Pennsylvania region is culturally Democratic, Republicans have moved the 18th District from marginal status to secure in the past few elections. President Trump easily won here in 2016, and resigned Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pittsburgh) didn’t even draw an opponent in his past two campaigns. The congressman’s forced resignation over a sordid extra-marital affair led to this special election.
Under Pennsylvania election law and process, the political party leaders convened district conventions in November to choose their special election candidates. The Republicans went with state Rep. Saccone who, until the 18th District opened, had been a US Senate candidate. Democrats turned to 33-year-old former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb, whose grandfather is a previous state House Democratic Leader. His uncle, Michael Lamb, is the Pittsburgh City Controller.
A new Gravis Marketing poll (March 1-5; 911 likely PA-18 special election voters) finds Saccone re-claiming a 45-42 percent lead, after an Emerson College survey (March 1-3; 474 likely PA-18 special election voters) found Lamb holding a similar 48-45 percent edge. The Gravis poll is curious because the Republican voter base appears heightened in the polling sample, while Lamb is receiving an unusually high spread among Independents (46-27 percent). Methodology aside, the two latest polls are telling us that the race is a toss-up and will go to the candidate who can best deliver his voters to the polls on Tuesday.
Regardless of who wins, however, the campaigning will not end. Because of the state Supreme Court’s new redistricting plan – the US Supreme Court is currently studying the Republicans’ stay motion, which could result in nullification – the regular election candidate filing deadline was moved to March 20. Therefore, it’s likely that win or lose, both Saccone and Lamb will be filing in a new district just a week after the special is decided. And, it is probable that they will choose different districts.
Saccone has already said he will run in new District 14, which contains 57 percent of the current 18th’s territory and is solidly Republican. It is widely believed that Lamb will then run in the new 17th District against incumbent Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley) because the new boundaries are much more favorable to a Democratic candidate.
Therefore, regardless of the result here on Tuesday, it’s possible that the winner will find himself with a short-lived victory, while the loser could very quickly be re-born into a new political life.
Should the new districts stand for the 2018 elections, the PA-18 special election winner in reality becomes a transitional incumbent. Though the outcome will likely have national ramifications, particularly if the Democrats win, the local result will rapidly become overwhelmed within a different political map and an immediate new campaign.