By Jim EllisMarch 14, 2018 — The Keystone State special congressional election was held yesterday, as southwestern Pennsylvania voters went to the polls to choose a replacement for resigned Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pittsburgh).
Before PA-18 Election Day, Democrats appeared to have the better candidate in the person of attorney Conor Lamb, whose grandfather was a former state House Democratic leader and uncle is the Pittsburgh City Controller.
Simultaneously, this election carried major national ramifications, yet the winner’s success might be short-lived, when one can be identified, which likely will take a day or two longer. With 100 percent of the vote in, Lamb leads Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Canonsburg) 113,111 (49.8 percent) to 112,532 (49.6 percent) a difference of only 579 votes as of this writing. Absentee and provisional ballots are still being counted. So there’s a chance that Saccone could overtake Lamb, however, that’s unlikely.
Democrats predicted victory before yesterday’s election, citing polls showing Lamb holding a slight lead over Saccone. The last survey, coming from Monmouth University (March 8-11; 372 likely PA-18 voters), gave Lamb leads of two to seven points, depending upon the overlaid turnout model. Obviously, the more energized and aggressive Democratic participation model gave Lamb the stronger edge. Under a low turnout model, the lead dropped to two points. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states that has no early voting system, so there were no tangible pre-election turnout indicators for this contest.
The Lamb campaign approached $5 million in dollars raised for the race versus Saccone directly commanding resources in the $1 million range. The national Republican Party organizations and conservative groups entered the district to even the spending, so it’s likely we’ll see total combined expenditures approach or exceed the $15 million mark.
Polling showed that awareness of the special election was very high. And President Trump’s recent rally there served to heighten PA-18 awareness even more. The key to a Lamb victory was in keeping the conservative Democrats in his column, a group that generally dominates the district despite its strong Republican voting pattern over the past decade. Originally, the district was politically marginal when it was first created in the 2001 redistricting plan but has moved decidedly toward Republican candidates in succeeding elections.
President Trump scored a big win here in 2016, taking the 18th by almost 20 percentage points, and Rep. Murphy even ran without Democratic opposition in the last two elections. Therefore, a Lamb victory would have given support to national Democratic leaders who argued that a surge in party turnout would allow them to win marginal and even right-leaning districts, which would allow them to challenge for the House majority. The Democrats must convert a minimum of 24 Republican districts in addition to protecting six toss-up seats of their own and re-electing all 177 of their incumbents seeking another term. If they achieve all of this, the Democrats would re-claim the House majority, last held in the 2009-10 congressional session, by a single seat.
Regardless, last night’s victor — and possibly the loser as well — must make a new political decision within a week. Assuming the US Supreme Court does not intercede and grant the Republicans’ motion to stay implementation of the new redistricting map that the state Supreme Court enacted, candidates must file in the new congressional districts on March 20. Therefore, both Lamb and Saccone will have to quickly decide where they will run for the May 15 primary election and, particularly for the loser, if he will even continue running for Congress.
Saccone has already said he will run in District 14, which is designed as a safely Republican district that contains 57 percent of the 18th District’s current territory. If he ultimately loses, which is the way the results are trending, Saccone will be highly vulnerable in the upcoming Republican primary. Even in winning, should he manage to overcome that 579-vote margin of Lamb’s, the nomination campaign may also prove difficult since he will be out of money, facing thousands of new voters, and without the national party apparatus coming in to supplement his efforts.
Lamb appears headed toward running in the neighboring 17th District. This seat is much more favorable to a Democrat candidate, but he will have to face incumbent Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley) who already had more than $1.2 million in the bank at the end of 2017 in an Allegheny anchored district that still slightly leans Republican. Hence, last night’s winner could experience a very short congressional career as he immediately enters a much different regular election cycle.