Pennsylvania election tests a 'template' for Democrats hoping to take the House

The worry for Republicans isn’t that Tuesday’s neck-and-neck special election in a reliably red pocket of southwest Pennsylvania could go to a 33-year-old Democrat who has never before held elected office. The worry is that the hotly contested race is a contest in the first place.

Dead-heat race in 18th district tests 'the right kind' of Democratic candidate to field this fall

A dependably red swatch of southwest Pennsylvania could fall after Tuesday's vote to a 33-year-old Democrat who has never held elected office. And for Democrats, this special election comes down to how to put the entire U.S. House of Representatives in play.

If fresh-faced Democratic challenger Conor Lamb wins, his party's fortunes in the congressional district could rewrite the playbook for winning more races in November's midterm elections.

Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district might seem a virtual lock for Republican candidate Rick Saccone. U.S. President Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016, and the previous Republican incumbent Tim Murphy ran unopposed his last two terms.

And that would probably be the case were it not for Lamb, says veteran Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

"Candidates matter. And Conor Lamb is a superior candidate," said O'Connell, who knows the Pennsylvania district well.

He is among a chorus of conservatives casting Saccone's candidacy as underwhelming. Lamb is on an energetic grassroots mission that's threatening to sway 2016 Trump voters, he said. 

Fundraising gap

Corry Bliss, the Republican operative who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund, noted with dismay the fundraising gulf between Lamb's $3.3 million and Saccone's $703,000 near the end of February.

"When one candidate outraises the other six to one and runs circles around the other, it creates real challenges for outside groups trying to win a race," he told The Associated Press.

Trump visited the district and stumped for Saccone over the weekend, drawing a crowd of 2,500. But he reportedly trashed Saccone, a former Air Force veteran who serves in the Pennsylvania state house, as a "weak" candidate in private, according to Axios news.

A Republican victory won't deliver instant relief to the party. A narrow win would still be alarming. What matters is whether the Republicans can win big enough to blunt Democrats' enthusiasm and deny them something valuable — "a template to win," as O'Connell puts it.

Recent polls have shown either candidate in the lead.

The longer-term prize is the House of Representatives. Democrats needs to flip 24 seats to take it in the fall.

Democratic candidate 'pro-military, pro-gun, pro-union'

Lamb is a moderate Democrat who has distanced himself from Nancy Pelosi, saying he would not vote to support another term for the U.S. House Minority Leader.

As a former Marine and federal prosecutor, he carries military and law-and-order bona fides. As a devout Catholic, he personally opposes abortion, though he said he respects that "choice is the law of the land."

"He's pro-military, pro-gun, pro-union," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, which is outside of the district in play.

"And guess what? On the big issue of tariffs, in which Trump called for a 25 per cent tariff on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum, the Democratic candidate is in favour of tariffs, too."

If Lamb, left, wins over Saccone, right, his campaign could serve as a 'template' for how the Democrats can win back the House of Representatives in November, political analysts say. (Alan Freed/Reuters, Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

If Lamb's candidacy can flip the former steel, coal and manufacturing district after nearly 15 years of Republican dominance, it will be a blueprint "for how Democrats can run the right kind of candidate" in large rural districts, Madonna said.

"In other words, districts that Trump won convincingly," he said. "That's the kind of candidate, the kind of campaign, that Democrats might try to imitate moving forward."

The United Mine Workers of America have given Lamb their full-throated endorsement, with the union's president Cecil Roberts proclaiming, "You can't let out-of-state millionaires outwork coal miners, outwork steelworkers and outwork schoolteachers."

'Very intelligent position'

Lamb's positions, while not exactly hugging the Democratic party, have endeared him to voters from both sides of the political aisle.

That apparently includes Scott von Wertmann's neighbour in the township of Upper St. Clair, an affluent suburb south of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County.

"I'm looking at a house across the street that had a Trump sign in 2016, and now it's got a Lamb sign," von Wertmann, a 50-year-old management consultant, said in a phone interview. His own home now has a Lamb sign.

Lamb is taking a centrist position that straddles both major political parties. That could help him flip formerly Republican voters, according to political analysis watching the race. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Von Wertmann, who says he often fluctuates "about 50-50" between voting for Republicans and Democrats in election cycles, said he supports Lamb for not operating "on the fringes" of liberalism. He also appreciates that Lamb has run a campaign that has largely avoided anti-Trump messaging, refraining from flaming a president many in the district still support.

"He has deliberately run what I think is a very intelligent position, which is refusing to make it a referendum on Donald Trump."

That said, Von Wertmann feels personally motivated to vote on Tuesday to register his disapproval "as the first opportunity to give a little bit of blowback" to the administration.

Shari Payne, 44, who works at a university and is supporting Lamb, also views the election as a test of Trump's presidency and his influence over southwest Pennsylvania, though she said she was most excited by Lamb's youth.

"[Lamb] doesn't need to fall back on denigrating the president," she said. "He's such a solid candidate, so why take away from that? He'll just upset people in the district."

Democrats 'need seats like this'

Pennsylvania's 18th is, in some respects, archetypal Trump Country. It was once home to steel and coal industries, and covers wealthier southern and eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, extending to the West Virginia border.

Tuesday's special election was triggered by Murphy resigning from the seat he held for nearly 15 years, following a sex scandal.

A victory for either candidate will probably be short lived. The 18th district won't exist next year due to a Supreme Court decision ordering the map to be redrawn.

Both parties would nevertheless benefit from a talking point going into November's midterms. A Democratic win could fuel candidate recruitment and fundraising, and reclaiming the House remains a relative long shot, said Philip Harold, a professor of political science at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Penn., which is within the 18th district.

"Is there going to be a blue wave of discontent? This election is going to give us insight into that," he said. "But [Democrats] need some 20-odd seats to take back the House, and they need seats like this." 


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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