The next special election that could portend a Democratic wave
A March special election in a conservative-leaning stretch of western Pennsylvania that Donald Trump won by 20 points is the next big test of whether a Democratic wave will sweep the party into the House majority for the first time 2010.
The congressional seat left vacant by ex-Rep. Tim Murphy, an anti-abortion Republican who allegedly encouraged a lover to terminate a pregnancy, has all the makings of the next major special election showdown. It pits Democrat Conor Lamb, a young, telegenic Marine veteran with a political pedigree, against Rick Saccone, a Trump-supporting GOP state representative with a long voting record and doubters among local Republicans.
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Though the district favors Republicans, the contrast in candidates, coupled with the enthusiasm coursing through the Democratic base around the country, has some GOP operatives in Washington and Pennsylvania on edge as they look ahead to the March 13 election.
“If you look at every special election to date, Republicans have been underperforming Trump’s [margin] by double digits,” said Titus Bond, a Republican strategist and polling director for Remington Research Group. “I don’t think Republicans are going to lose this seat, but it’s going to be a battle and they’re not going to take any chances,” he added.
House Republicans note they have yet to lose a special election in the Trump era. But their candidates have also won less than 53 percent of the vote in all four contested races of 2017, even in districts where Trump got up to 60 percent in the last presidential election. Based on that pattern, Pennsylvania’s 18th District — a mostly white, blue-collar, conservative- leaning district stretching from Pittsburgh’s suburbs into rural coal country — could conceivably be in play.
Saccone is a former Air Force counterintelligence officer who quipped that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump.” Lamb is a 33-year-old veteran and former federal prosecutor with a well-known political name in the region.
“Rick, with his age and experience, is more than qualified, but he isn’t the sparkle of everyone’s eye, while Conor is a tall, blonde, blue-eyed stud of a Marine,” said William J. Green, a political analyst on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. “There’s no question that Republicans are worried about the contrast.”
Saccone’s fundraising has been an early source of concern for Republicans watching the race. He raised just over $70,000 in eight months while running for U.S. Senate earlier this year, before switching to the House race when Murphy resigned. And even the most under-the-radar Democratic special election candidates have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in small donations from around the country.
“I’ve always raised the money I need to win, and I’ve won five elections, so I’m working hard on raising money and we’ll have the resources we need,” Saccone said in an interview. “I’m not concerned about anyone’s grumblings unless they step forward and own them.”
But some local Republicans are already urging state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, who lost the nomination to Saccone in a convention last month, to run in the regular primary in May, two GOP sources familiar with those conversations said. Those Republicans are already planning in case Saccone loses the special election. The filing deadline for the regular primary is on March 6, a week before Saccone faces Lamb.
Reschenthaler’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Saccone has “never raised any money and he’s never had any real organization before,” one Republican strategist who works on Pennsylvania races said. “There’s enough out there with Saccone to make him so wacky that Republicans — particularly moderate Republicans in the suburban areas — say this isn’t my cup of tea.”
Local Democrats are cautiously optimistic, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is “still assessing the matchup,” according to a committee aide. On the other side, Republicans are considering whether Trump and Vice President Mike Pence might campaign in the district.