While It's Still Here, The 18th District Will Be A Wildcard For Long-Dominant GOP
Congressional campaigns across Pennsylvania remain in flux since the state's high court issued a new congressional map last week. If the map survives a pending GOP lawsuit, it would take effect for the May primary.
Not only would district lines shift, but district numbers would change, too.
For example, the 14th, which has covered the city of Pittsburgh since 1962, becomes the 18th in the new map.
But the March 13 special election between former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb (D-Mt. Lebanon) and state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Elizabeth), will take place in what has been the 18th District south of Pittsburgh.
The district extends from the West Virginia border east past Ligonier – roughly two hours in driving time – and includes much of Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties, as well as a slice of Allegheny County.
Some describe it as "Trump Country." The district voted for the president by about a 20-point margin in 2016, and polls were trending Republican even before that.
But local leaders, such as Republican Westmoreland County Commissioner Chuck Anderson, argue the special election is no sure win for the President’s party. Voters here are thoughtful, said Anderson.
“They look at the people. They look at the issues. And, they vote them,” Anderson said. “They don’t just go pull the ‘D’ or the ‘R’ lever. They think about it and actually split their vote.”
Retired schoolteacher Patricia Pluck of Greensburg said she hasn’t voted for a Democrat in at least 10 years, but she's planning to vote for Lamb in the special election.
“I’m a registered Republican, but I haven’t been too happy with a lot of things that have been going on,” she said.
Pluck said she’s disappointed in her party and what she considers to be its leaders’ refusal to compromise with Democrats. Lamb could bring a new attitude to Capitol Hill, she said.
Many Remain Undecided
As a Republican, Pluck is in the minority in the 18th, where Democrats hold an estimated 70,000-voter registration advantage.
The district is more than 90 percent white, and about one-third of the population has graduated from college, census data show. It’s a mix of wealthy suburbs, industrial towns and rural communities.
At a fish fry at St. Ann Roman Catholic Church in Waynesburg last month, many voters said they're still undecided.
Retired construction engineer Sam Boyd said he believes President Trump needs more help from Congress, and he considers Saccone’s professed loyalty to Trump to be a big selling point.
“That touches me pretty strong, and I like that about him,” said Boyd, who wore a baseball cap honoring President Trump’s inauguration. “Now, in fairness to Conor Lamb, he said he wants to go down there [to Washington] for the people, not as a Democrat.”
Boyd has spent most of his life in Waynesburg, a rural area in the southwest corner of the 18th, where there once was a lot of coal mining. He expects his choice to turn on which candidate he decides is stronger on gun rights. He said he’s a firm believer in the Second Amendment.
“I've got a gun on me right now,” Boyd said over his empty plate. “I carry a gun for self-protection.”
He knows Saccone and Lamb both oppose additional restrictions on what types of guns law-abiding citizens may own, so Boyd said he’ll keep mulling his vote.
For Republican software developer Terry Nick of Level Green in Westmoreland County, the choice is easy. Nick said he’s voting for Saccone because the candidate shares his values.
“I’m for lower taxes. I’m for lower spending. It’s just my philosophy,” Nick said.
Nick recalled growing up the Mon Valley where his grandparents settled and became coal miners. He said he stills knows many coal miners and steelworkers who have tended to vote Republican since crossing over to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
“I don’t know,” Nick said. “The [Democratic] Party seemed to have left those people.”
Energy Capital of the East
In Greene County, many share Nick’s concerns, according to Republican County Commissioner Archie Trader.
“We’ve had several mines close,” Trader said. “We just had another one that’s going to close in a couple months, where it’s close to 400 people. And, that’s a real grab on us, a small community.”
For Trader, such hardship helps to explain why the district voted so heavily for Trump in 2016.
“[Trump] said, ‘I’m going to help coal,’” Trader remembered. “So, a lot of the coal miners just went wild over him. I don’t think we’re going to see that [hold] true in the elections coming. I think [voters will] be back to their party lines.”
Trader said it’s possible Lamb could win back support from Democrats who voted for Trump, given that, like Saccone, the attorney takes a relatively friendly stance toward shale drilling.
That sentiment also applies to neighboring Washington County, said Democratic County Commissioner Larry Maggi.
“Southwestern Pennsylvania is the energy capital of the East,” Maggi said. “If somebody comes out against that, absolutely that’s going to be detrimental to their campaign.”
A New Toss-Up
Farther north in suburban Allegheny County, attorney Barbara Shah of Bethel Park said a potential Democratic wave could benefit Lamb.
Shah and fellow Democrats were alarmed by Trump’s victory in 2016, but at a January campaign event for Lamb, Shah said she’s hopeful they’ll prevail with a strong grassroots ground game.
“I think the answer is going out, knocking on doors, and getting people out to vote. And I think Conor is going to have the people to do it,” Shah said.
Republicans are also excited about their candidate, according to Moon GOP Committee Member Laura Shisler, who was in the crowd that greeted Trump when he landed in Air Force One and appeared with Saccone in January.
“When you speak privately with people, everybody is ‘rah-rah,’” Shisler said. “They love Trump. And they love Rick.”
The most recent polling from Monmouth University provides little clue as to whether Democrat Shah or Republican Shisler is correct. Saccone’s 3-point lead is within the statistical margin of error, and just this week, Cook Political Report and Inside Elections changed their ratings for the district from ‘Lean Republican' to 'Toss-up.'