Pennsylvania Special House Election Rattles Republicans

March 12, 2018 Greg Giroux

This analysis was first available to Bloomberg Government subscribers.

Republicans are waging a expensive political rescue operation in southwestern Pennsylvania to stave off a shaming special-election defeat.

GOP and conservative groups aiding Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone have spent more than $10 million ahead of tomorrow’s election in the 18th District, a conservative bastion President Donald Trump carried by about 20 percentage points in the 2016 election.

A victory by Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine opposed to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, would embolden the minority party, which needs a net gain of 24 House seats in November to overturn the Republican majority.

Saccone and Lamb are vying to succeed Tim Murphy (R), who resigned last October amid personal scandal. In 24 consecutive special House elections, the party defending the vacant district has been victorious, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government.

Underscoring the national importance of the election, Trump campaigned for Saccone in the district March 10. Former Vice President Joe Biden stumped for Lamb four days earlier.

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political forecasting unit of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, rates the race a toss-up.

Lamb winning would be “egg on the face of the president” and “a really big deal,” said Philip Harold, a political scientist at Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh.

Even a narrow win by Saccone would underscore challenges for Republicans, who’ve labored to win races in Republican-friendly areas since Trump became president. Democrats are targeting dozens of districts where the president got a lower vote share than the 58 percent he received in Pennsylvania’s 18th District 16 months ago.

Lamb, 33, has been difficult for Republicans to depict as a liberal because of his background, message discipline and mixed political views that include opposing Pelosi (D-Calif.) and supporting more natural-gas drilling.

“I’ve said from the beginning of this campaign that I didn’t support Nancy Pelosi for any leadership position,” Lamb said at a March 3 debate with Saccone. “I also don’t support Paul Ryan. I think we need new leadership.”

Lamb defended gun rights and opposed a proposal to raise the minimum purchase age for a rifle to 21, but promoted a universal background-check system with “no loopholes, period.” Lamb’s campaign released a television ad March 8 endorsing background checks.

Saccone, 60, has emphasized his experience as a state legislator and Air Force veteran who’s worked in North Korea and South Korea.

“The world is in turmoil and our country is in peril: all the more reason we need to send the most qualified and experienced person to Washington to handle the pressing problems facing our nation,” Saccone said at the March 3 debate.

Fundraising struggles have limited Saccone’s ability to tell his own story. He raised $918,000 through Feb. 21 compared with $3.9 million for Lamb, Federal Election Commission reports show. The district’s voters are far more likely to see television ads from Washington-based Republican groups than from Saccone.

Lamb has accounted for 87 percent of all broadcast television ads from the Democratic side, while Saccone’s campaign was responsible for just 12 percent of all ads sponsored by Republicans, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG. Candidates get more favorable ad-rates than outside groups.

Lamb is “a very attractive candidate, and the optics of comparison between them have not been favorable to Saccone,” Harold said.

The pro-Saccone/anti-Lamb spending includes more than $3.5 million from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, and more than $3.3 million from Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-political action committee linked to House Republican leaders.

The groups sought to yoke Lamb to Pelosi and criticized him for opposing the 2017 tax-cut law written by Republicans. In the final 10 days of the campaign, Republican advertising shifted from taxes to public safety, attacking Lamb’s record as a prosecutor.


Lamb has highlighted protections for Social Security and Medicare in a district with a median age of 44.6, compared to 37.7 nationwide, and where 36.3 percent of households receive Social Security, compared with 30.2 percent in the U.S., according to estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

About 93 percent of district residents are non-Hispanic white, compared with 62 percent nationwide. While Democrats outnumber Republicans on the voter registration rolls, this part of Pennsylvania has been trending Republican in federal elections for decades.

One will find the “archetypal Trump voter” in western Pennsylvania, “one of the most ethnically homogeneous parts of the nation,” Harold said.

The district has education and income levels higher than the national and Pennsylvania averages in part because it includes some affluent parts of Allegheny County near Pittsburgh. The district also includes a swath of Westmoreland County between Pittsburgh and Johnstown, plus parts of Washington and Greene Counties, which border West Virginia. The opioid crisis has buffeted the region.

Shifting Lines

Pennsylvania’s 18th also is a district that will soon cease to exist in current form.

Barring a last-minute reversal by the federal courts, tomorrow’s election will be the last held under a Pennsylvania congressional map the state Supreme Court invalidated in January and then supplanted last month with a map that’s more favorable to Democrats. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the Republican-drawn map unlawfully diluted Democrats’ votes.

Win or lose tomorrow, Lamb could run in November in a reconfigured district, numbered the 17th, where Rep. Keith Rothfus (R) is expected to seek re-election. The new 17th includes just 20 percent of the people who live in the current 18th, though it would include Lamb’s home and is more friendly to Democrats.

Saccone could run in a strongly Republican district, numbered the 14th, that includes most of the current 18th and is even more pro-Trump. He could face opposition in the May Republican primary.

Polls close at 8 p.m. eastern time.

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