Democrat Conor Lamb on Verge of Winning Pennsylvania House Seat in Major Upset Victory Against Trump and GOP

Election '18

Pennsylvania voters in a special U.S. House election sent an unambiguous message they were fed up with President Donald Trump and the GOP on Tuesday, all but electing a Democratic newcomer in a district that had been staunchly Republican for years.

The blue wave of Democratic voters from Pittsburgh—and apparently some Republicans crossing party lines from surrounding rural counties—surged for Conor Lamb, 33, a federal prosecutor and ex-marine who was poised to beat the Republican, Rick Saccone, in a photo finish for Pennsylvania’s 18th district. The seat became open after the GOP incumbent resigned amid a sex scandal.

With 227,015 votes counted, representing all 593 precincts, Lamb had 49.8 percent or 113,111 votes, compared to 49.6 percent, or 112,532 votes for Saccone—a lead of 579 votes. By midnight local time, election officials in Washington County, one of the districts conservative rural counties, said they would start counting 1,195 absentee ballots. (Overseas and military ballots can arrive by next Tuesday and still count.)

“We’re not giving up… We're going to be working late into the night and into tomorrow,” Saccone, a state legislator who embraced Trump’s agenda, told supporters. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 points in the district, which spans more Democratic Pittsburgh but also includes surrounding conservative counties that comprise the state’s mountainous southwestern corner.

While each side was weighing its options late Tuesday, pundits and scholars who have studied the district and crunched the turnout statistics said Lamb appeared to have the edge. Because the counties use paperless voting machines, any call for a recount would not change the totals captured only by computer memory cards.

“Breaking: Lamb (D) won 57% of the Allegheny Co. election day vote, but 62% of its absentees,” tweeted David Wasserman, the U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “That bodes really well for his chances of breaking nearly even in the other counties’ absentees… Barring a major tabulation error, Conor Lamb (D) has defeated Rick Saccone (R) in #PA18.”

In a nutshell, Wasserman and other experts said Democrats surged and recaptured some voted from 2016's white Trump base.

“Story of the result: Lamb (D) & Saccone (R) both hit roughly the %s they needed in each county of #PA18,” Wasserman said in another tweet. “But here's the difference: Allegheny Co. [Pittsburgh] (Dem) turned out at 67% of '16 levels, Westmoreland Co. (GOP) turned out at just 60% of '16. Another pro-Dem enthusiasm gap.”

The closeness of Tuesday’s vote will send shockwaves through both parties. Democrats will be elated, sensing that dozens of House seats held by GOP incumbents, as well as other statewide offices, from governor to senator, could be in play for this November's election. Democrats need 24 seats to retake the House majority. If Lamb wins, that number becomes 23.

The race will be perceived as lifting the 2020 presidential prospects for former Vice President Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania native who campaigned for Lamb. States like Pennsylvania, where many working-class white voters backed Trump, may now be seen as winnable for Democrats. Mainstream media analyses will likely emphasize that Trump, who came to Pennsylvania to campaign for Saccone, is losing his grip on his white base.

Labor unions will also be seen as winners, because they turned out voters for Lamb, who happens to share some of Trump’s trade stances. The district is a former steel-making hub that recently went through a boom-and-bust cycle tied to natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Like other Appalachian regions, it is struggling with an opioid addiction crisis.

Overall, Democrats demonstrate that they have historic momentum heading into the 2018 midterms. Internally, that dynamic is likely to energize primaries, where the Washington-based party establishment has embraced centrist candidates, like Lamb. The party’s progressives, led by Bernie Sanders’ supporters, are pushing candidates focusing on racial, social and economic justice issues.  

For Republicans, the results are yet another sign that they may face an electoral wipeout in the fall. Virtually every Republican interviewed on network television Tuesday night downplayed the results as they came in—Saccone never was ahead. Some, like ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said Saccone was a bad candidate.

On the other hand, the size of Tuesday’s blue wave—with a Democrat poised to win a district where Trump beat Clinton by nearly 20 points—may prompt some Republican incumbents to announce their retirements in coming days. It will also prompt numbers-crunching pundits to move dozens of “safe” House seats to their “vulnerable” columns. That’s because almost no one thought it was possible to reverse that big of a recent partisan margin of victory.

Republican candidates now have to decide what their relationship to Trump will be. Last year, Trump campaigned in Alabama for Senate candidate Roy Moore, who lost in an upset to Democrat Doug Jones. Not only did Trump come to Pennsylvania to campaign for Saccone, the GOP spent more than 2.5 times what Lamb and Democrats did, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, apparently to no avail.

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