By Jim EllisNov. 21, 2017 — After the raucous Alabama special Senate election concludes on Dec. 12, voters in western Pennsylvania will go to the polls next March 13 to fill a US House vacancy. We will remember that Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pittsburgh) resigned under pressure in October after a series of extra-marital affairs came into public view, with allegations that he urged a mistress to have an abortion at the very time he was co-sponsoring pro-life legislation.
Murphy had represented his southwestern Keystone State district since originally winning election in 2002, in a seat the preceding redistricting plan created as open. Prior to serving in Congress, Rep. Murphy was elected to two terms in the Pennsylvania Senate.
Upon the congressman’s resignation, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) scheduled the replacement general election for March 13. Under Pennsylvania statute, there is no primary to choose partisan nominees. Rather, the various political party members meet in a special district convention to choose among individual candidates.
A week ago Saturday, Republicans chose state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Elizabeth/ Jefferson Hills) who had previously dropped his US Senate campaign to take his chances in the open House seat. Prior to winning his position in the state legislature in 2010, Saccone had served as an Air Force officer, a civilian employee of the Army in Iraq after retiring from active duty, and a television anchorman for a South Korean English-language news station. He also was assigned to North Korea for the purpose of assisting with a proposed agreement to prevent further nuclear weapons development. Saccone won the GOP nomination on the second ballot, defeating state Sens. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Bethel Park) and Kim Ward (R-Greensburg).
Democrats met in their 18th District special convention Sunday and chose as their standard bearer. Lamb, like his future Republican opponent Rep. Saccone, also won nomination on the second ballot by defeating Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli, former Obama Veterans Administration official Pam Iovino, Allegheny County Councilman Mike Crossey, psychologist Rueben Brock, writer Keith Seewald, and emergency physician Bob Solomon.
With 554 of the 901 Democratic Party members attending the convention, the delegates would vote until someone received majority support among those present and voting. Candidates had to garner at least 10 percent in order to advance to the next round. After the first ballot, Lamb secured first place and faced Cerilli and Iovino in the second vote with all others being eliminated. The former federal prosecutor, whose father is the Pittsburgh city controller and grandfather an ex-state Senate Democratic leader, captured 57.6 percent of the second ballot votes, thus clinching the party nomination.
Though saying he relishes the campaign against state Rep. Saccone, Lamb has major obstacles to overcome if he is to win the March election. The 18th District that includes parts of Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, and Greene Counties, is safely Republican. President Trump scored a 58-38 percent victory margin here last November, slightly better than Mitt Romney’s 58-41 percentage spread. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) recorded a 55-44 percent PA-18 win here against then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) back in 2008. In his eight congressional campaigns from this district, former Rep. Murphy averaged 72 percent of the vote and didn’t even have a Democratic opponent in 2014 or ‘16.
The latest special election, and probably the last for the current two-year election cycle, is now officially underway. Facing a long special campaign, it remains to be seen if Conor Lamb can overcome the solid Republican voting trends to make this a competitive contest.