Lamb Declares Victory in Pa. Despite Uncounted Votes

Lamb Declares Victory in Pa. Despite Uncounted Votes
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Lamb Declares Victory in Pa. Despite Uncounted Votes
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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CANONSBURG, Pa. – Democrats outperformed expectations in a string of House special elections in 2017, making GOP stronghold districts competitive and pointing to narrow losses in heavily Republican areas as signs of a potential wave election this fall. But each time, they failed to actually turn the seat blue.

Conor Lamb may have changed that.

Lamb declared victory early Wednesday morning in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District after finishing the long night ahead of Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone by 641 votes, with only absentee ballots from one county remaining untallied. Despite the margin being just 49.8 percent for Lamb to 49.6 percent for Saccone, the young Democrat appeared confident that his path to victory was secure.

As he entered a hotel ballroom here in front of hundreds of campaign supporters and volunteers who stayed through hours of uncertainty, Lamb was introduced as “Congressman-elect Conor Lamb.”

“It took a little longer than we thought but we did it,” he told the crowd. “You did it.”

Still, major news outlets didn’t call the race, and Saccone didn’t concede, appearing at his own election night party well before Lamb gave his victory speech to say he would “fight all the way to the end. You know I never give up.”

Even before Lamb declared victory, the results represented a major boost for Democrats and a significant warning sign to Republicans ahead of this year’s midterm elections. A Republican has represented PA-18 in Congress since 2003; Mitt Romney won it by 17 percentage points in 2012, and President Trump won it by nearly 20 in 2016. Yet Republican outside groups and the president led the charge in the district to attempt to lift Saccone’s fledgling campaign: GOP groups spent more than $10 million in backing the party’s nominee and attacking Lamb.

Trump joined the last-minute push, holding a rally with Saccone outside Pittsburgh Saturday night, followed two days later by his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., campaigning with Saccone Monday. Republicans hoped Trump would increase turnout among his base by enough to give their candidate a slight edge, in some ways turning the race into a referendum on the president in a district that largely supports him.  

Yet in keeping with the campaign strategy he had taken for months, Lamb downplayed the national significance of the race. He had campaigned exclusively on local issues, rejecting the national spotlight even as it continued to shine brightly on the race. After casting his vote early Tuesday morning, he shrugged off the notion that the race was a referendum on Trump.

“People are really excited for this race. I’m happy for them that their voices are being heard all around the world today,” Lamb told reporters. “But this is a local race. People are voting for either me or Rick Saccone and I don’t think it has anything to do with the president.”

Lamb downplayed the president’s rally Saturday – Trump nicknamed him “Lamb the sham” at the event – and said at that point, his campaign was “executing a plan that we came up with a long time ago that had nothing to do with the president.”

Democrats will be looking closely at Lamb’s campaign for signals about how to run successful races in the fall. Given his significant fundraising advantage over his opponent, the fact that he didn’t face a Democratic primary and the unique circumstances surrounding the race with the potential change to Pennsylvania’s congressional maps this fall, it may be a difficult to replicate his campaign’s success.

Still, Democrats view his victory as affirming two critical components of their fall strategy: first, generate strong turnout in suburban and Democratic areas – such as Allegheny County, a portion of which is in the district Lamb won – fueled by antipathy for the president; second, win back blue-collar, working-class voters who supported Trump in 2016. Lamb campaigned as a champion of working-class issues, and made outreach to labor unions central to his approach. 

National Democrats exalted in the apparent win. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declared Lamb the victor even before he did. DNC Chairman Tom Perez said that as the midterms approach, “the momentum is undeniable for Democratic candidates running up and down the ballot.”

For Republicans, there were several warning signs in the race. Republican strategists criticized Saccone, frustrated that his lackluster fundraising prevented him from defining the race, and Lamb, early and forcing them to spend on TV ads both attacking Lamb and supporting Saccone – it’s rare for outside groups to need to spend on positive biography ads for a candidate.

It also left a major question for Republicans regarding whether their message of a positive economy propelled by tax cuts passed last year can overcome the negative environment surrounding Trump. GOP groups backed off the tax-cut message in their closing TV ads in the race – though it may have been more difficult for Saccone to run on the issue than it will be for Republican incumbents who voted for it.

Still, in the end, for many voters the race centered on Trump. Some supporters turned out specifically to back the president, including Bill Chorgo, 71, from Elizabeth Township.

“It’s a very important election. It’s very important to the country and to Donald Trump and I’m a Donald Trump supporter,” Chorgo said.

But Democrats were equally motivated by the idea of sending the president a message with their votes. When asked why she cast her ballot for Lamb, Eileen Sudzina, from Allegheny County, had a simple answer:  

“Because I hate Trump is why. That’s the only reason why. I would have never come here in a million years, but Trump is a frickin’ crazy person.”

Voters in the district had been inundated with TV and radio ads, campaign mailers and intense media attention in recent weeks, but few said they made up their minds near the end of the race.

Ken Brennfleck, a registered Democrat, voted for Lamb despite having backed Saccone in his races for the state legislature. He said he made up his mind after the two debated, and was frustrated by the influx of negative campaigning aimed at Lamb.

“The negativity was one of the things that turned me off with Rick Saccone and Saccone’s campaign because I didn’t hear one nice thing said,” Brennfleck said after casting his vote.

Central to Republicans’ attacks on Lamb were attempts to link him with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. They have made Pelosi the bogeyman of the Democratic Party, and have made no secret that linking her to opponents will be central to their approach this fall. Several party strategists believed efforts to link Lamb and Pelosi were effective, pointing out that he ran an ad on TV explaining that he wouldn’t support her for leader.

But there were signs on the ground that voters didn’t care about the association, a potential indication that it will be difficult to tie challengers with no Washington experience to the liberal congresswoman, especially if the candidates disavow her. 

“He doesn’t even know Pelosi at this point,” said Janet Delanna, 64, a registered Republican who backed Lamb. “I don’t think he’s going to lock-step. There are things he’ll probably agree with, there are probably things he won’t agree with. I’m very comfortable with my vote.”

“I doubt he even knows Nancy Pelosi,” said Al Smith, a registered Democrat.  “He’s never been in office before; how the hell would he know her?”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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