Redrawn Pa. Maps Add Uncertainty to Special Election
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s redrawing of congressional district maps this week threw confusion and uncertainty into the competitive and closely watched special election for a House seat in Western Pennsylvania next month.
The new maps do not alter the district lines or ballots for the March 13 election in the 18th Congressional District. But the change for November has implications both minor and far reaching that could affect both the outcome next month and the approach from both parties to races in the area come the midterms.
Republicans are challenging the redrawn lines, which are said to benefit Democrats, in the U.S. Supreme Court, adding another layer of confusion as both sides wait to see whether the state court’s action will prevail.
“It’s another thing you have to do in that maelstrom of a special election,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican strategist in the state. “Specials are always very special and can be pains in the butt, and this is another level of pain for folks in both camps.”
Mike Mikus, a veteran Democratic strategist who ran a 2010 special election in the area, said the situation is unprecedented, meaning there is no campaign playbook for how to handle the change or communicate about it to voters.
“I don’t remember ever seeing a situation like this anywhere in the country, let alone here,” Mikus said. “We really don’t know, and anybody who says they know is lying.”
The race was highly competitive before the court’s decision threw a wrench into it three weeks before Election Day. President Trump won PA-18 by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016, but Democrats see an opening with Conor Lamb, a veteran and former prosecutor, as their candidate against state Rep. Rick Saccone. (The seat opened up when Rep. Tim Murphy resigned amid a sex scandal.) A public poll showed Saccone with just a three-percentage-point lead last week.
Strategically, the new map likely changes nothing for either party. National Republicans and GOP outside groups have spent heavily on Saccone’s behalf, running millions of dollars’ worth of ads backing him and attacking Lamb, hoping to stave off an embarrassing defeat in a Trump-heavy district. House Republicans’ campaign committee introduced a new ad Wednesday going after Lamb’s record as a prosecutor, while a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan launched an ad tying him to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. (Lamb has said he would not support Pelosi continuing in that role.)
National Democrats, meanwhile, have avoided wading in except for limited television advertising, concerned both about raising expectations and nationalizing a close election in unfriendly territory. Lamb’s campaign has been on the airwaves without national support to push back against the GOP onslaught, and released an ad Wednesday from the former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania pushing back on the attacks.
But while the new district lines didn’t change the overall importance of the race or the broader strategies from either side, the implications are far-reaching. Neither candidate will live in the same district come November: Lamb would be redrawn into the neighboring 17th District, a GOP bastion that would be newly competitive if the map holds up in November. Saccone would also be drawn out of the current 18th District and into the newly formed 18th, which would include mostly Democratic areas represented by Rep. Mike Doyle. It would force Saccone to choose between a highly improbable campaign against a Democratic incumbent or running in a more GOP-friendly district where he doesn’t live (which is legal). The period for collecting signatures to appear on the ballot in November begins before they face voters in the special election.
Lamb, in a statement, reiterated that he would run for a full term in 2018, but did not specify in which district, saying he is “entirely focused” on the special election.
“I’m concentrating on the election on March 13th and protecting the people of the 18th District from extreme budget cuts,” he said. “I am running for this seat now and I will be running later no matter where they draw the lines."
Saccone, in a statement, criticized the court, saying it should not “insert itself” into drawing congressional maps, but was equally vague about the particulars of his decision after March.
“I'm going to run and win in whatever district I compete in because it's not about the lines that are drawn, but about the values I represent,” he said.
If Lamb does prevail, it would make a potential challenge to GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus in the neighboring district easier. That district would be significantly less Republican under the new map, and Lamb would get a boost in name recognition and fundraising from being an incumbent congressman, albeit for only eight months. For Republicans, meanwhile, defeating Lamb now could be an early blow against his potential run in November.
“If he loses this race … there will be criticism of how or why he lost. Everyone is an expert after the fact,” said Mike Butler, a Democratic strategist based in Pittsburgh. “If he wins and has the momentum, it makes him more compelling against Keith Rothfus.”
On the flip side, the stakes for Saccone have increased as well. Though he doesn’t currently live there, he could run in the neighboring 14th District, which will include a significant chunk of the district he’s currently running in. Being the incumbent for a large number of those voters would be a boost, and could ward off potential primary challengers. If he loses the special election, other Republicans are likely to consider entering the race.
Still, even before those decisions come, the court’s announcement could cause trouble for either candidate in the next three weeks. Saccone is relying on strong turnout from the Republican base, given Trump’s continuing popularity in the district, and Lamb is hoping for a surge from the Democratic base and potential crossover voters who no longer support the president. Any voters who lose enthusiasm or choose not to vote out of confusion because of the new district lines could be a major loss for either candidate.
Mikus, the veteran Democratic strategist, said he expected Lamb’s campaign to “redouble” efforts in areas that are being shifted into new districts come November, making sure those areas don’t see a drop-off in support. Butler said Lamb’s campaign would probably have to focus literature and campaign mail on reminding voters that despite the court’s ruling, nothing has changed ahead of this election. He said a drop-off could hurt Lamb more than Saccone.
“They don’t have any margin for error, so they can’t afford to lose any voters out of confusion,” Butler said.
Local Republicans, meanwhile, are infuriated by the court’s ruling – some have even called for impeaching the state justices – and are seeking to use it as an energizing force ahead of the next month’s election.
“The message that we are immediately telling anyone who calls and complains is that if you really want to send a strong message on how you feel about this, vote for Rick Saccone on March 13,” said Michael Korns, Republican chairman of Westmoreland County, most of which will fall into the newly formed 14th District.
But even as they use the court’s action as a rallying cry, some Republicans acknowledge the potential problem: It’s difficult enough to get voters to remember to turn out for a special election; it’s much harder to do that when the winner won’t even be their congressman for a year.
“You’re going to have to encourage people who will not be represented by this person in eight months to come out and vote in this special election,” said one GOP operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “There is a high level of confusion right now as far as turnout goes.”