Democrats across the country in special elections over the past year consistently tried to make the races referendums on President Donald Trump, while their Republican opponents typically focus on qualifications, independence and grasp on local issues.
The special election to fill a vacant House of Representatives seat in a western Pennsylvania district that Trump carried with ease in 2016 flips the script. Here, it is the Republican candidate — state Rep. Rick Saccone (shown above right, in the dark jacket) — who wants to make Trump the issue. He brought the president in to campaign for him on Saturday, and in November said he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.”
In addition, the GOP faces the whiff of scandal, since the reason for the election was the resignation of Rep. Tim Murphy, a pro-life Republican who reportedly pressured his mistress to end her pregnancy.
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Democrat Conor Lamb, meanwhile (shown above left), has downplayed the national importance of the race and staked out positions that are a good deal more moderate than those espoused by most Democrats in Congress.
He is pro-gun, personally opposes abortion, and supports the steel and aluminum tariffs that Trump announced last week. He even said he would not vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the party’s leader in the chamber.
“If Democrats had run a traditional liberal, urban Democrat, you and I wouldn’t be talking about it,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Beyond Lamb’s stance on the issues, Madonna said, the Democrat has outraised his Republican opponent and offers an attractive biography — he’s a pro-military former Marine and prosecutor who has talked about the opioid epidemic in a region in which overdose deaths are twice the national average.
“He sounds very much like a conservative Democrat … He has insisted this is all about the 18th [Congressional District],” Madonna said. “This is not about national politics. He’s not a Trump fan, but doesn’t run around talking about him.”
Saccone, meanwhile, has come under fire from some national Republicans for lackluster campaigning and fundraising.
All of this has combined to make this a close race. While Trump defeated 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton there by nearly 20 points, recent polls have shown Saccone and Lamb trading leads. The most recent survey, released Monday by Monmouth University, gave Lamb a 6-point lead. He has a 2-point advantage in the final pre-election RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average.
“I wouldn’t be taking this for granted if I were on either side of the political aisle,” said Kyle Kopko, a political scientist at Elizabethtown College in central Pennsylvania.
[lz_table title=”House Special Elections” source=”Daily Kos”]Democrats have been competitive in House districts won by President Donald Trump
Kansas 4th,27.2,R +6.2
Georgia 6th,1.5,R +3.6
S.C. 5th,18.5,R +3.1
Utah 3rd,23.9,R +32.4
* 2016 margin
Kopko said the makeup of the district, which includes the fringes of Pittsburgh and parts of Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties, favors Republicans — and especially those of the Trumpian variety. He noted Trump outperformed Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who also carried the district in his 2016 re-election bid.
“This is Trump country,” he said. “All these things ought to be working in Saccone’s favor.”
Special elections for the House in recent decades almost always have favored the incumbent party in Pennsylvania. According to records reviewed by University of Minnesota political science researcher Eric Ostermeier, the incumbent party has won 28 out of 29 special elections in the Keystone State dating back to 1951.
In addition, Ostermeier said, Pennsylvania Democrats have won a smaller share of House races the past three election cycles than in any three-election stretch since the 1928 through 1932 period.
“They’ve had an unprecedented poor run of things,” he said.
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Still, Ostermeier said, Lamb likely will benefit from energized Democrats — a trend that has been apparent all across the country and helped him raise more than $3 million.
“The way the national winds are blowing [is] not irrelevant,” he said.
Ostermeier said if the race is as close as polls suggest, it will represent a huge improvement over 2016 even if Lamb falls short. But it also would add to four close-but-no-cigar upset bids in special House elections last year.
“It’s telling, but there’s still going to be lots of disappointed partisans if it’s a moral victory,” he said.
Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall professor, said it might be a mistake to assign too much significance to Tuesday’s outcome. But he said that if Lamb succeeds, it “provides some additional clues as to what Democrats can do if they run local races [in Republican-leaning districts] … You don’t want to nationalize the election.”
Regardless of who wins Tuesday, both candidates could end up in Congress next January. That’s because a new political map ordered drawn by the state Supreme Court will be in effect for the fall midterm elections — and it splits the 18th Congressional District.
Lamb may opt to run for a full two-year term in the new 17th District, which will be more favorable terrain for Democrats, while Saccone could opt for the more conservative 14th District.
That makes the gobs of money and national attention shining on Tuesday’s race somewhat surreal, Madonna said.
“They’re now going tooth and nail in a national election … in a district that won’t even exist,” he said.