Democrat Conor Lamb Appears To Have Won Pa. Special Election. Here's What It Means

Mar 14, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 9:12 pm

Updated at 3:50 p.m. ET

Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have won the special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, defeating Republican Rick Saccone in an upset for President Trump and congressional Republicans, based on a review of the vote by member station WESA and barring a recount.

That a Democrat is even close in this Western Pennsylvania congressional district can mean only one thing — bad news for Republicans in this midterm year.

"We should be able to elect a box of hammers in this district," veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy told the Washington Post's Robert Costa. "If we're losing here, you can bet there is a Democratic wave coming."

Why the alarm bells?

Consider: Not only is this a district President Trump won by about 20 points in November 2016, as plenty have pointed out, but there are 118 Republicans sitting in seats Trump won by less than the 18th Congressional District in Pennsylvania. Democrats need to flip a net of 24 seats to take back control of the House.

It's important to not overread the results of any special election, but the result — no matter which way it goes in the end — raises questions about the Trump coalition and how much it transfers to the Republican Party broadly; the GOP's messaging on everything from continuing to use House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a cudgel to the tax bill; and whether Republicans can hold off a Democratic wave given that this result was yet another example of Democrats' holding on to the enthusiasm advantage.

Where the race goes from here

Member station WESA has reviewed current vote counts from all of the individual counties in the district. That count shows Lamb with a lead of 627 votes. Between provisional ballots, absentee ballots and military/residents overseas ballots still outstanding, there are only 618 votes left to count based on the latest numbers. That gives Lamb an insurmountable lead.

This is barring the potential for a protest recount, which would be based on evidence of voter fraud or errors in counting. Pennsylvania law does not provide for an automatic recount in congressional races.

There is no timeline for certification of the race at this point, according to the Pennsylvania secretary of state's office.

A recount is an outside possibility at this point. One would be triggered if three people in each precinct come forward with evidence of voter fraud or counting errors. Loosely, they have until the middle of next week to do that.

Warning signs for GOP that the Trump coalition may not be transferable

White, working-class voters were key to Trump's presidential victory — and there are plenty of them in this district.

Trump won whites with some or no college education by 39 points, a wider margin than any candidate since at least 1980.

There are no exit polls to know for sure how this group voted Tuesday, but Lamb made clear appeals to them — and it would be impossible to make up a 20-point gap without at least some crossover. In fact, dozens of precincts went more Democratic than in the 2016 election.

Lamb also benefited from Saccone's history of supporting "right to work" legislation in the state Legislature. The district has a sizable number of union households that might have been willing to support a different Republican candidate, but unions and the Lamb campaign were able to define Saccone as anti-union.

Also, turnout was pretty high, especially for a special election in March. It was so high, in fact, more people voted than in the gubernatorial general election during the last midterm in 2014.

What's more, the approximately 228,000 people who went to the polls were 78 percent of the approximately 294,000 cast for Republican Rep. Tim Murphy. Murphy ran unopposed in 2016 but resigned last October amid a sex scandal, which set this special election in motion.

Republicans spent some $10 million to try to hold this district (that won't even exist in nine months because of the maps' being redrawn by the state Supreme Court) and turn out their voters. But despite the relatively high turnout, Saccone got only about 113,000 votes (the same as Lamb) — less than 40 percent of Murphy's total in 2016.

Trump made an eleventh-hour visit this past weekend to try to help Saccone over the line.

"I think the president helped close this race," House Speaker Paul Ryan contended Wednesday, per NPR's Susan Davis.

But that does not appear to have been enough.

The Pelosi factor and the tax bill messaging

Does this win for Democrats mean they will start to abandon Pelosi? It very well might, but it depends on the district. A couple of things to look at:

  • Republicans seemed to abandon talk of the tax bill, something Democrats point to as the weakness of its message. (One moderate Democratic member of Congress, though, told NPR last week he thinks it's been Democrats who have struggled with how to speak out against the tax bill, as some people see higher paychecks.)
  • Republicans also hit Lamb hard, trying to tie him to Pelosi. But it didn't work this time. Lamb cut a conservative Democratic figure and distanced himself from the minority leader.

To which Ryan had this to say: "This is something that you're not going to see repeated, because they [Democrats] didn't have a primary. They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative, who ran against the minority leader, who ran on a conservative agenda. You will have primaries in all these other races, and the primaries bring them to the left. So I just don't think this is something they're going to be able to see a repeat of."

But it provides a road map for Democrats in these very kinds of districts if they want to win. That has to be worrying for Republicans.

It also does raise the question of what Democrats do about Pelosi. If they win the House back in large measure by running against Pelosi, can they really then turn around and re-elect her speaker this fall? And there's the question of whether enough Democratic candidates will vow not to support her for speaker that she can't get elected.

The suburbs and making inroads in rural areas

Fifty-two percent of Lamb's vote came from the suburban precincts in Allegheny County outside Pittsburgh.

If Democrats are going to win back the House, their road goes through the suburbs. Nationally, in 2016, Trump won the suburbs with 49 percent. In 2012, Mitt Romney got 50 percent in them. So that's key.

Lamb won only a handful of precincts in the other three more rural counties in this district, but dozens of precincts went more Democratic than in the 2016 presidential election for Trump.

In other words, Lamb was able to cut into Republican margins — and when every vote counts, as in a race like this, it can make all the difference.

NPR's Arnie Seipel contributed to this report.

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In Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have won a nail-biter special election over Republican Rick Saccone. That's based on a count of the vote from Pittsburgh member station WESA. It's a remarkable upset in a district that President Trump won by more than 20 points less than two years ago. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro is here to tell us what this result says about the national political climate ahead of November's midterms. Hi, Domenico.


SHAPIRO: President Trump campaigned in the district for Saccone on Saturday night - still wasn't enough to put Saccone over the top. What does this tell us?

MONTANARO: Well, look. Republicans are really nervous this morning after this result. Here's why. Trump, you said, won this district by 20 points. But Republicans are looking across the map, and they see 118 districts right now that are tighter than that 20-point margin that President Trump won by less than that. So Democrats need to flip 24 seats to win back the House, and today they're feeling a little bit more confident about that, and this result's raising a lot of eyebrows.

SHAPIRO: Explain how Conor Lamb, the Democrat, pulled this off and whether there are broader lessons for his party there.

MONTANARO: So a big thing in this election is the suburbs - and across the country in 2018. And Lamb cleaned up in suburban precincts, the kind that are key to Democrats winning in 2018. But he also made inroads with rural voters. There are more traditional Republican voters still. These places, you know, went overwhelmingly republican to Rick Saccone in this election, but Lamb was able to cut into Saccone's margins. And when every vote counts like in this race, it can make all the difference.

Lamb also put a lot of distance between himself and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, saying that he would not vote for her to be speaker again. He carved out a pretty conservative profile for himself. He stayed away from criticizing President Trump. He's pro-gun. So, you know, this is something that he was able to pull off. And if you're a Democrat and you're looking to win one of those other 118 districts that Trump - that voted for Trump, Lamb might have offered you a path to how you can win.

SHAPIRO: And on the Republican side, the GOP invested heavily in this race - millions of dollars, sending the president to campaign there. What does the GOP take away from this lesson?

MONTANARO: Well, Trump was propelled into office by a surge of votes from these rural whites and whites without a college degree that we talked about. Trump won these groups in historic numbers. Republicans on the ballot this year need those same voters to come out in similar margins the way they did for Trump. If they don't, it could be a big problem for the GOP. So they're waking up today in the halls of Congress, and those incumbents are being told they need to knock on more doors and work a little bit harder because they want to try to hold off a potential Democratic wave.

SHAPIRO: This was a really unusual election. It was a special election. It's happening in a district that is not even going to exist in November...

MONTANARO: (Laughter) Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Because of redistricting in Pennsylvania. So how big a national lesson can you actually draw from this?

MONTANARO: Well, look. It's important to remember that. I mean, it is a great point. You know, this election was almost like it happened in one of those science beakers or something. You know, it'll be gone after class is over, (laughter) you know? But Republicans spent $10 million to try and protect this seat because they didn't want the narrative to become what it is today - that they're struggling, that the enthusiasm is on Democrats' side and that they stand to lose the House.

And here's the thing. Historically, the party in power loses a lot of seats in a president's first midterm, and it's even worse when a president's approval rating is below 50 percent like President Trump's is today.

SHAPIRO: So if Democrats are trying to take back the House, is the lesson, run against your party leadership; don't criticize the president? That's what Conor Lamb did.

MONTANARO: It depends on where you're running. So if you're running in one of those conservative, Republican-won districts, that might be a way to offer for you. But if you're running in a little bit more of a moderate district, that's where we could see some of that pull from the left in some of these primaries.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks.

MONTANARO: Hey, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.