For an election in a district that won’t exist in a few months, pundits are claiming that the outcome of Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s seventeenth district could be a harbinger of the November midterms.
As Politico explains, the traditionally blue-collar district in Southwestern Pennsylvania is “ancestrally Democratic” – the party has a six-point voter registration advantage thanks to the coal mines and steelworks that dot Allegheny County and the surrounding area. But over the past decade, it’s turned Republican. President Trump carried district by a massive 20-point margin, and Mitt Romney carried it by 12 points in 2012.
However, Republican candidate Rick Saccone, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, has been panned by pundits aligned with his own party as a weak candidate whose lackluster local fundraising efforts have been subsidized by a flood of outside money into the race – roughly $10 million. President Trump has visited the district twice – including a Saturday night rally where he unveiled his 2020 campaign slogan, “Keep America Great”.
Other members of the Trump administration, including Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr., have tried to whip up votes for Saccone.
But Democrat Connor Lamb, who has pitched himself as a centrist who personally opposes abortion and post-Parkland gun control legislation, is benefiting from his relative youth (he’s 33), his military background (he’s a former Marine) and his family’s history (Lamb’s father was the local Democratic party head during the 1970s, and one of his uncles is the City Comptroller in Pittsburgh. The national party didn’t contribute much to the race: Within the district, Lamb managed to outraise Saccone by five-to-one.
According to CNN, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent $3.5 million. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, spent $3.3 million. The Republican National Committee chipped in $1.1 million and ran an expansive get-out-the-vote operation, while the Trump-aligned super PAC America First Action spent $1 million.
Democrats, meanwhile, spent relatively little: Patriot Majority PAC spent $450,000 and Vote Vets spent $344,000. Several other groups spent smaller amounts, largely on digital advertising. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $260,000 on television advertising.
According to the latest polls, Lamb has a slight lead over Saccone:
…And if Democratic turnout is high, that lead could swell to six points.
Per the Hill, local Republican pundits are already losing hope…
“I have a very, very bad feeling in my gut about this one. I don’t think this is going to go well for Saccone,” said one Pennsylvania Republican strategist who asked for anonymity to give a candid impression of the race. “At some point, I saw [Saccone] as a guy in a rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic. They were rowing like hell, but they weren’t making any headway.”
Meanwhile, union leaders in the district who supported Trump in 2016 are now backing Lamb:
“The Bible tells us someday we are all going to be judged by how we treat the least of these, and the labor movement and the Democratic Party are about treating the least of these with respect and dignity and lifting them up,” said United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts.
“Let me try to explain to you what kind of folks we are and what kind of Democrat Conor is. He’s a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social Security-believing, health-care-creating and sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat!”
While Democrats will unquestionably tout a Lamb victory as a harbinger of victories to come in November, some Republican strategists have insisted that Saccone’s candidacy was flawed in ways that wouldn’t apply to the broader election map.
One Republican member of Congress told The Hill that while Saccone “has a good bio, he’s just not a good candidate.”
And regardless of who wins the seat, they will be forced to run another campaign in November. And unless the Supreme Court steps in with a legal challenge, the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court has implemented a new congressional map for the 2018 cycle that completely changes the district lines.
Saccone is already circulating petitions to run in a more conservative new district in the southern portion of the state, according to The Inquirer in Philadelphia. Lamb hasn’t said which district he’d mount his bid in.
Trump reportedly views Saccone as a weak candidate, but he traveled to the district in the hopes that his decision to slap tariffs on imported steel and aluminum would help energize the base to turn out for Saccone.
As Trump pointed out on Saturday, there were “a lot of red hats” in the crowd at Trump’s rally. “The world is watching,” Trump said Saturday.
Another Republican loss would compound problems for Trump, who has presided over a loss in Alabama’s special election and a blowout in the Virginia governor’s race.
The vote will also be the first political test of Trump’s tax reform plan, which polls show is growing increasingly popular with voters.
The vote was triggered when anti-abortion incumbent Tim Murphy resigned following reports that he pushed a woman with whom he had an affair to get an abortion. Polls in the area close at 8 pm, local time.