Democrat Conor Lamb likely winner in Pennsylvania — blue wave next?

Result in a Trump-friendly district now hinges on 1,400 absentee ballots — but either way GOP now fears the worst

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 14, 2018 12:45AM (EDT)

Conor Lamb; Rick Saccone (
Conor Lamb; Rick Saccone (

No Democrat has come close to winning Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district in decades. And no Democrat has yet won a special election in a red district in the Trump era. On Tuesday night, Democrat Conor Lamb came extremely close, standing on the verge of a startling victory over Republican candidate Rick Saccone in a district that Donald Trump carried in 2016 by almost 20 percentage points. 

With 99 percent of the vote counted, including every vote cast on Election Day, Lamb leads Saccone by 0.2 percent, 113,111 votes to 112,532 votes. That's an extremely narrow margin -- but to win, Saccone would have to get about 70 percent of the roughly 1,400 absentee votes still outstanding. Around 12:45 a.m. on Wednesday, Lamb addressed his supporters in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and declared victory -- although Saccone has not yet conceded and a possible recount lies ahead.

Like a regular-season matchup that previews a likely playoff contest, the race between Lamb and Saccone was widely watched for its midterm implications — and it should be little surprise if several vulnerable Republicans soon announce their retirements after this shock election.

The temperature never broke 35 degrees in most parts of the southwest Pennsylvania district on Election Day. That may have played a part in depressing the turnout in a traditionally Republican district that runs through four counties from the wealthy suburbs south of Pittsburgh through the steel and coal mining towns along the West Virginia border that make up the heart of Trump country.

Trump won the district by 19 percentage points in 2016. But Republican voters, traditionally motivated to the polls by anger or fear, appeared apathetic about the first major election of 2018. Energized Democrats, on the other hand, showed up in numbers that more closely reflected state voter registration records, which show Democrats slightly outnumbering Republicans among the 500,000 registered voters in the district.

Despite an all-out push from the White House, including a get-out-the-vote appearance by President Trump for Saccone on Saturday in Moon Township, an area Trump carried by 11 percentage points in 2016, Republican voters simply did not show up on Tuesday.

"The world is watching," Trump said during the 73-minute speech, where he barely mentioned Saccone’s name even once. Lamb went on to win Moon Township by six points, and outperformed Hillary Clinton's 2016 numbers in every part of the district.

The district also saw Vice President Mike Pence, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. campaign on behalf of Saccone. None of it seemed to make much difference.

For his part, Lamb did his best to downplay the national attention. “This is a local race,” he told reporters after voting at a church in his hometown of Mt. Lebanon on Tuesday. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the president.”

Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former assistant U.S. attorney, had appeal in the working-class strongholds that make up the rural parts of the district, and piled up big margins in the more affluent suburban areas of Allegheny County, just south of Pittsburgh. A centrist Democrat from a well-known political family, Lamb dramatically outraised Saccone in a district where Democrats hadn’t even bothered to run a candidate the last two cycles. (Former Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican, resigned after it was revealed that the anti-abortion conservative had urged a woman with whom he had an affair to have an abortion.)

Saccone, a conservative state legislator who described himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump,” had previously planned to run for the Senate before the House seat opened up late last year. Since then, Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court has redrawn the state’s congressional district lines in a gerrymandering decision, and this district will no longer exist in November.  

Perhaps more than his naked political maneuvering, or even Trump’s general unpopularity, Saccone may have been most badly hurt by his anti-union stance in this heavily unionized district.

Saccone has a record in the state legislature of opposing organized labor on just about everything, costing him the support of the unions that had largely backed the discredited Murphy. Lamb, who has the backing of unionized steelworkers, came out in favor of Trump’s planned tariffs and campaigned on a pledge to protect union jobs and pensions. His campaign ads frequently vowed to fight for Medicare and Social Security, programs that impact nearly one out of every five residents of the district.

Late on Tuesday night, Saccone declined to concede defeat and it was unclear whether Lamb would claim victory. (The national Democratic Party did not wait, publishing a press release declaring him the winner.) There is no mandatory recount for House elections, but either campaign can petition in court to demand one.

Even if Saccone somehow squeaks out the win, Tuesday’s election was clearly a bad sign for Republicans. Money isn’t enough to save vulnerable Republicans. Nearly 80 percent of outside spending in the district benefited Saccone’s campaign. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC poured more than $3.5 million into the district. GOP voters still either stayed home or flipped to Lamb.

There are more than 100 Republican members of Congress up for re-election this year in districts considered more competitive than this one, according to the Cook Political Report. No matter how Republicans try to spin this apparent defeat on Wednesday, their fear of the blue wave is more tangible now. 

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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