The Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, may still contest the outcome, but Conor Lamb’s 627-vote lead appeared insurmountable, election officials said.
Conor Lamb, a Democrat and former Marine, scored a razor-thin but extraordinary upset in a special House election in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, may still contest the outcome, but Lamb’s 627-vote lead Wednesday afternoon appeared insurmountable, given that the four counties in Pennsylvania’s 18th District have about 500 provisional, military and other absentee ballots left to count, election officials said.
With the count so close, supporters of either candidate can ask for a recount.
That slim margin — out of almost 230,000 ballots cast in a district that President Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016 — nonetheless upended the political landscape before November’s midterm elections. It also emboldened Democrats to run maverick campaigns even in deep-red areas where Republicans remain bedeviled by Trump’s unpopularity.
Most Read Stories
- Snohomish County man has the United States’ first known case of Wuhan coronavirus
- 5 of the Seattle area's most changed neighborhoods: We crunched the data on population, income, jobs
- 'We were before our time': Remembering the fight to change King County's namesake from a slave owner to a civil-rights leader VIEW
- Did the Seahawks make a mistake by letting Richard Sherman go?
- How white families with young children can work to undo racism
Republican officials in Washington, D.C., said they were likely to demand a recount through litigation, and the National Republican Congressional Committee put out a call for voters to report any irregularities in the balloting. Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the committee, said the party was “not conceding anything.”
The battle for a district in suburban and rural areas around Pittsburgh illustrated the degree to which Trump’s appeal has receded across the country. And it exposed the ways in which both parties are weighed down by divisive leaders: Democrats by Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader; Republicans by Trump and Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House.
Just as vividly, the race showed that only one party — the Democrats — appears willing to deal with the implications of campaigning under its unpopular figurehead.
In Pennsylvania, Lamb, 33, a former prosecutor from a local Democratic dynasty, presented himself as independent-minded and neighborly, vowing early that he would not support Pelosi to lead House Democrats and playing down his connections to the national party. He echoed traditional Democratic themes about union rights and economic fairness, but took a more conservative position on the issue of guns.
Throughout the race, Lamb said he welcomed support from people who voted for Trump, and he saved his most blunt criticism for Ryan, highlighting the speaker’s ambitions to overhaul Social Security and Medicare.
Template for red states
Lamb’s approach could become a template for a cluster of more moderate Democrats contesting conservative-leaning seats, in states like Arkansas, Kansas and Utah. Democrats in D.C. have focused chiefly on Republican-held seats in the upscale suburbs where Trump is most intensely disliked.
But they are hungry for gains across the political map, and in red areas they have encouraged candidates to put local imperatives above fealty to the national party, even tolerating disavowals of Pelosi.
Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who represents a farm and manufacturing district Trump narrowly carried, said the party’s recruits should feel free to oppose Pelosi if they choose. She noted that she was helping one such anti-Pelosi candidate, Paul Davis of Kansas, who was in Washington this week raising money.
“If they want somebody else to be a leader, then they ought to express that,” Bustos said. “I don’t have a problem with that.”
Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, a veteran Democrat from a neighboring district, said Lamb had benefited from “buyer’s remorse” among Trump supporters and had wisely tailored his message to the conservative-leaning area.
“This guy has made a lot of promises that aren’t being kept,” Doyle said of the president.
The special election was held to fill the seat left by Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who espoused strong anti-abortion views and who resigned last fall amid revelations that he had asked a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to get an abortion.
On the Republican side, Saccone, 60, an Air Force veteran, campaigned chiefly as a stand-in for Trump, endorsing the president’s agenda from top to bottom. He campaigned extensively with Trump and members of his administration and relied heavily on campaign spending from outside Republican groups that attempted to make Pelosi a central voting issue. Conservative outside groups also sought to promote the tax cuts recently enacted by the party, but found that message had little effect.
Yet the Republicans’ all-hands rescue mission was not enough to salvage Saccone’s candidacy. Saccone has not conceded, and Republicans have indicated they may challenge the results through litigation, a longshot strategy.
In a meeting with House Republicans on Wednesday morning, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, who leads the party’s campaign committee, described the race as “too close to call,” according to a person who heard his presentation.
But Ryan and Stivers also called the election a “wake-up call” for Republican lawmakers, telling them they could not afford to fall behind on fundraising, as Saccone did.
Lamb raised $3.9 million and spent $3 million, compared with Saccone’s $900,000 raised and $600,000 spent as of Feb. 21. But Republican outside groups swamped the district. Between conservative super PACs and the National Republican Congressional Committee, Saccone had more than $14 million spent on his behalf.
Lamb got just over $2 million in aid.
As Republican lawmakers spilled out of their morning conference meeting, few seemed willing to address how much Trump is energizing Democrats and turning off independent voters. Some even argued that Saccone had managed to make the race close only thanks to the president’s rally in the district on Saturday.
“The president came in and helped close this race and got it to where it is right now,” Ryan said.
A White House spokesman echoed that sentiment, warning against reading too much into the outcome, saying Trump’s campaigning for Saccone “turned what was a deficit for the Republican candidate to what is essentially a tie.”
Others in the conference, however, talked more openly about the political difficulties of breaking with Trump.
“There is no benefit from running away from the president,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, a member of his party’s leadership, noting that Republican candidates need core conservative voters, a constituency that still backs the president, to show up.
“It doesn’t get them the same thing as Lamb opposing Pelosi,” McHenry said.
Even Stivers, who has the task of re-electing a contingent of lawmakers from districts that backed Hillary Clinton, declined to say Republicans should feel free to break from Trump.
“I am not going to tell anybody to be against the president,” he said.
Crucial suburban vote
Turnout levels in the district’s suburban precincts proved crucial for Lamb, and a handful of Republican House veterans conceded this broader vulnerability.
“We know that’s probably where the president’s appeal is the weakest,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a longtime party strategist, adding: “It’s a pattern we’ve seen throughout.”
Democrats were buoyant at Lamb’s victory, viewing it as both a harbinger of a November wave and perhaps a sign that the party had overcome some of the most stinging Republican attack lines of the Obama years. Polling in both parties found Pelosi widely disliked among voters in the district, but the Republican ads featuring her apparently failed to taint Lamb.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat, said Lamb’s campaign showed that the Republicans’ anti-Pelosi playbook had limits. The race, he said, should embolden Democrats to contest difficult districts in the Midwest with an economic message that appeals to elements of Trump’s base.
“Conor Lamb was talking about redevelopment and economic growth, and the Republicans were talking about Nancy Pelosi,” Peduto said. “It’s like they couldn’t help themselves.”
Peduto urged the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the electioneering vehicle for House Democrats, to expand its target list in the Trump-aligned Midwest.
“Look through the Rust Belt, in areas that used to be blue,” Peduto said. “If you’re in a congressional district that’s 8, 10 or 12 points carried by Trump, I would hope that the DCCC is now putting that in the target.”