Battleground PA: Democrats Hope To Keep Electoral Momentum Going In Special Election

Posted: Mar 13, 2018 8:17 PM
Battleground PA: Democrats Hope To Keep Electoral Momentum Going In Special Election

The polls are closed in the race to fill the vacancy left by former Republican Congressman Tim Murphy in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district. Murphy resigned in October of 2017, after it was discovered that he allegedly tried to pressure his mistress into having an abortion after a pregnancy scare. This mess was a GOP creation. Now, we’ll see who will replace Murphy in a district that will disappear by November.

There’s going to be a lot of commentary no matter who wins this race in PA-18, its impact on the 2018 election, and its aftershock effects. National Public Radio had a decent post about the four things to look for: is the Trump coalition transferable, is this a harbinger of things to come for 2018, can the tax bill save the GOP, and will the anti-Pelosi messaging work? It’s a district that went heavily for Trump in 2016, but polls have painted a different picture in this contest. It’s either been virtually neck-and-neck between the two candidates, Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, or with Lamb leading Saccone. President Trump held a rally in Pennsylvania over the weekend to stump for Saccone, ripping into Lamb, whom he coined “Lamb the Sham,” the Democrats, and the media. Saccone has positioned himself as a staunch supporter of Trump. In recent days, the headlines have been reading as if the GOP was deploying countermeasures, panicking over a possible Lamb win (via Politico):

Republicans mounted a last-ditch stand here to save their struggling candidate for a House seat deep in the heart of Trump country, unleashing the party's full arsenal to stave off a major embarrassment for the president and GOP heading into the midterms.

Nearly every corner of the national party was involved in the final push over the weekend — from the Republican National Committee, which deployed staffers from Washington to knock on doors; to a cash-flush GOP super PAC that orchestrated an under-the-radar effort to diminish Democratic hopeful Conor Lamb’s standing with liberal voters; to the powerful Koch political network, which is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a mail and field deployment campaign ahead of Tuesday’s closely watched special election.


The multimillion-dollar undertaking underscored the enormous stakes for the party in the southwestern Pennsylvania district, which Trump won by 20 points but where polls show Lamb and Saccone locked in a tight race. A loss here would be an ominous sign for the party in the run-up to November, starkly illustrating its softening support even in Trump strongholds.


By the end of the weekend, Republicans had dropped more than $8 million on TV ads, outspending Democrats nearly 2 to 1, according to media buying figures. In an indication of just how much capital the administration is expending on the contest, Donald Trump Jr. is slated to campaign with Saccone on Monday, two days after his father staged a rally.

Also, we’ve found out that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did something of a covert operation in PA-18 as well (via McClatchy):

Publicly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did little to help Conor Lamb.

Behind the scenes was a different story.

The Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania’s special House election — whom polls suggest is poised to pull off a shock upset in Tuesday’s race over Republican Rick Saccone — benefited from a quiet but determined DCCC effort to boost his candidacy, according to local party officials and a source with knowledge of the spending strategy.

The group’s multi-pronged effort totaled more than $1 million and included significant investments in field staff, NFL-themed digital ads, and a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort to pull Lamb across the finish line. It also included a nearly $450,000 infusion into the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, money used to fund voter outreach.

The National Rifle Association also came to the aid of Saccone, though not nearly as much as the DCCC with Lamb (via ABC News):

The National Rifle Association has engaged in an under-the-radar spending campaign for Republican candidate Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania’s Tuesday special election.

It is the only federal political spending the pro-gun group has reported since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., according to FEC reports.

The NRA spent $7,868 in support of Saccone but the money wasn’t seen in a high-profile venture like TV ads or get-out-the-vote efforts. Most of it - $7,532 - was spent on mailings scheduled to be distributed in the district on Monday. The remaining $336 was spent on phone banking earlier this month, according to campaign finance filings.

Lamb also seems to have learned from Jon Ossoff's failure in GA-06:

Now, with the polls closed and ballots being counted all we can do is wait. NBC News noted that the GOP was “not feeling good” about tonight. As for the NPR question about the tax bill, well, the GOP dropped that line in their messaging in the closing hours of the election. It also doesn’t bode well that the spin for Saccone’s lackluster performance in the polls is that this is a Democratic district

Here’s what NBC News had on the fallout from this race:

First, the race's outcome will have big local repercussions. If Lamb wins tonight, he would likely run for re-election in the new 17th District, a seat that takes in much more of his suburban Allegheny County base than the current 18th District and is much more favorable to Democrats. He might even be the favorite there against GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus in the fall, assuming both Lamb and Rothfus choose to run in the district where they live. If Saccone wins, he would have the inside track to win reelection in the new 14th District, which takes in much of the current 18th District but is roughly three points more Republican. Regardless of who wins, both Lamb and Saccone will only have a week to plot their next moves: Pennsylvania's filing deadline for the November elections is March 20.

Second, tonight's outcome will reverberate nationally. If Lamb wins, the election would tell Republicans that even districts that voted for President Trump by 20 points may not be safe this fall. It could also indicate that the tax cut bill - a key element of GOP groups' messaging throughout February on the Pittsburgh airwaves - failed to motivate Trump supporters to get behind Saccone sufficiently, a development that could cause several more incumbent Republicans to contemplate retirement. Even if Saccone wins, he's unlikely to do so by nearly the same margin as Trump did in the district. And that would signal it's become possible for Democrats to make inroads in GOP districts by running to their party's right on issues like guns, trade and energy - just like Lamb did.

For now, it looks like this race is going to be very close. Around 60 percent of the precincts are in, with Lamb leading 52/47 over Saccone. We still don’t know Westmoreland County and other rural regions of the district, which is where Saccone needs to do well in order to make up ground. The problem is we’ll probably find out the results of that county in one huge data dump because they’re not going to report by precinct: 

UPDATE: Race still considered very close, but Lamb is doing well enough in Westmoreland to win from the numbers we have thus far.

UPDATE (9:48): Lamb leads Saccone by a little over 2,400 votes, and the NYT election needle is offline for now: 

Precinct results are not currently available in Westmoreland County, a heavily Republican part of the district. We’re monitoring the county-level results closely, but for now we can’t responsibly make a forecast without more detailed information about where in Westmoreland County the votes are coming from.

UPDATE III (9:56): Lamb now leads by a little over 1,100 votes, but David Wasserman of Cook Political Report notes that such a close race in a GOP district doesn’t bode well for Republicans. Lamb leads Saccone 50/49.4. Reminaing Allegheny and Washington precincts lean Lamb and Saccone respectively:

UPDATE (11:03): Allegheny County’s absentee ballots have been counted. Lamb increased lead, but only by 847 votes. Saccone is still in the hunt. Lamb was down by just 95 votes prior to absentee count. Greene County said they will not count their absentee ballots until tomorrow. GOP sources telling Politico the Saccone did better than what was projected, but this race isn't over. 

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UPDATE (11:18): Washington County announced that are going to count all of its 1,195 absentee ballots. They have to remove the ballots, scan the bar code on the ballots, and there will be a hand count. It’ll take several hours. Associated Press announces that they will not call the election tonight. 

UPDATE (11:42): No one has called the race, but the DCCC is declaring victory. Republican Rick Saccone has addressed supporters, vows to fight on because “it’s not over yet.”