Election Day 2016 was a banner day for the Republican party. Nationwide, the GOP had not been so strong since before the Great Depression. But recent events have not been as propitious for Republican prospects. In the handful of special and off-year elections since then, Democrats have done notably better. They have closed their margins substantially even in deep-red districts all across the country, won the Virginia and New Jersey governorships in resounding fashion, and even managed to snatch Jeff Sessions’s old Senate seat in Alabama. All of this has left Republicans feeling uneasy, forcing them to spend campaign resources in conservative redoubts.
One such GOP bastion is Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, located in the far southwestern corner of the state. This typically safe seat for the GOP is in legitimate jeopardy of falling into Democratic hands in an upcoming special election, to be held Tuesday, March 13.
The district is centered in Mount Lebanon and Bethel Park, relatively well-to-do, inner-ring suburbs of Pittsburgh. From there it branches both east and west. To the east, it takes in suburban Monroeville and a big chunk of heavily Republican Westmoreland County. To the west, it runs south to Greene County, coal-mining country, as well as most of working-class Washington County.
Local residents can be forgiven if they are uncertain who actually represents them, for district lines have changed again and again over the decades. Thirty years ago, this district was split across the old 12th, 20th and 22nd districts — mostly represented by pro-union Democrats Joseph Gaydos, Austin Murphy, and John Murtha. But the population in western Pennsylvania has been stagnant or shrinking, as the rest of the country has grown apace. So lines have had to be redrawn again and again.
Moreover, the shape of Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district is not to be found anywhere in nature. It is, rather, the product of the elaborate Republican gerrymander of the state — carefully zigging and zagging across county and township lines to create a precise balance of Republican and Democratic voters. The GOP-dominated state legislature drew district after district in such a way, resulting in a 13–5 Republican delegation to the House, even though President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton statewide by just 44,000 votes out of 6.2 million cast. Recently, the Democrat-dominated state supreme court ruled these boundaries unconstitutional, and took it upon itself to redraw state lines.
Overall, the district has a strongly Republican tilt, going 58–38 for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is about the same margin as in 2012, but shifts within the district were notable. The upscale Pittsburgh suburbs preferred Mitt Romney more than they did Trump, while the smaller working class towns were more supportive of Barack Obama. These latter voters are recent converts to the Republican cause: Decades ago, when the fabled “Reagan Democrats” of places like Macomb County, Michigan, broke to Ronald Reagan, the white working class in western Pennsylvania remained stubbornly Democratic. Beaver, Greene, Fayette, and Washington counties, in the southwest of the state, were loyally Democratic until George W. Bush’s presidency. Last year, all four broke massively to Trump.
The long-serving representative of the district was Tim Murphy, a psychologist and former state senator first elected to the House in 2002. Murphy, who focused on mental-health issues during his tenure, was more or less a safe vote for leadership. He was a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership, and rarely sided with Tea Party insurgents. Last year, he admitted to having an affair with a forensic psychologist 30 years his junior. Worse, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed text messages suggesting that Murphy had encouraged his married paramour to have an abortion, running contrary to his pro-life record in government. Under heavy pressure from party leadership, Murphy resigned in disgrace in October, triggering the upcoming special election.
All else being equal, an open-seat special election in an overwhelmingly Republican district should not be of much interest. But all else is not equal in the age of Trump. As we have seen time and time again, Democrats have done impressively well in challenging Republicans on their home turf. Last year, Democrats nearly bested Republicans in Trump in GOP bastions such as Wichita, suburban Atlanta, and Montana. And, of course, Democrat Doug Jones managed to topple Republican Roy Moore in Alabama, one of the reddest of red states in the country.
Driving this is a combination of several factors. The first is the president’s anemic job-approval rating, which seems to be affecting Republican turnout and diminishing support for the GOP among independent voters. Relatedly, there is the Democratic #Resist movement. Liberals and progressives are, to be blunt, riled up over the Trump presidency, and they are turning out at rates quite elevated for special elections. This has not simply been the case for congressional elections, but elections for state offices as well: The #Resistance recently powered Democratic candidates to surprise victories in solidly Republican state-senate districts in Missouri and Wisconsin.
All else being equal, a special election in an overwhelmingly Republican district should not be of much interest. But all else is not equal in the age of Trump.
Additionally, the Democrats have lately been fielding stronger candidates than Republicans. Moore, of course, was a disaster, while Montana Republican Greg Gianforte physically attacked Ben Jacobs of the Guardian right before the special election. Rick Saccone, the Republican nominee in this election, does not have such baggage, but he is hardly a standout. An Air Force veteran, Saccone has represented the Pittsburgh suburbs in the state house since 2012. He is proudly running as “Trump 2.0,” pledging strongly to support the president if and when he gets to Congress. But he hardly has the panache of the man he claims to emulate. Moreover, as one plugged-in Republican consultant told me, “His issue set is so orthodox it looks like he thinks his constituency is the Heritage Foundation break room.” Worst of all, his campaign has been, to put it bluntly, pathetic: His fundraising has been anemic, forcing him to rely heavily on the national party; his campaign schedule has been lackadaisical; and his grassroots organization basically nonexistent.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been putting forward appealing alternatives — Jones in Alabama, Jon Ossoff in the Atlanta suburbs, and now Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. Lamb’s family has long been active in western Pennsylvania politics — his uncle currently serves as the controller of the city of Pittsburgh, and his grandfather was in the state legislature. Just 33 years old, Lamb was the assistant U.S. district attorney for western Pennsylvania, and previously served as an officer in the Marines. He has run an energetic, impressive campaign — having raised a campaign war chest many times the size of Saccone’s and recruited an impressive volunteer force. There is a lot for undecided voters to like about him.
Public polling in the district has been scarce, but it points to a tossup, which — given the overall tilt of the district — is a victory for Democrats. A Gravis poll last week found Saccone ahead by three points, while an Emerson College poll found Lamb up three points.
It looks as though the GOP’s effort to nationalize the election has fallen flat. Republican Super PACs had blasted Lamb for opposing the Trump-backed tax reform passed last year, and have run advertisements suggesting that Lamb would be a “lamb” of Nancy Pelosi should he be elected to Congress. And yet the polls have not moved in Saccone’s direction.
Lamb, meanwhile, has been trying to focus on bipartisanship rather than ideology. His website states that his “only bias is the one they taught us in the Marines: a bias for action.” A clever line, no doubt, but also notably evasive. In full fairness to Lamb, walking a tightrope between the culturally conservative voters he will need to win and the liberal donors bankrolling his campaign is no little feat. He has accordingly been cagey on abortion, merely stating that “choice is the law of the land” and promising to uphold it. Considering that it is the “law” created by the Supreme Court, it is not at all clear what this would mean in practice. Moreover, he has evaded questions on whether he would support Pelosi as speaker of the House, calling such a question “presumptuous.” Maybe so, but voters can be forgiven for wanting more specifics about what kind of votes he would cast in Washington.
Ultimately, Lamb can win by counting on relatively low turnout districtwide, rallying the #Resistance vote to maximum effect, then winning a critical mass of formerly Democratic Trump voters who have either soured on the president or are underwhelmed by Saccone. On the other hand, Saccone can win turning out the Trump vote — plain and simple.
A victory for Lamb would be a huge symbolic triumph for Democrats heading into the fall midterms. The last thing Republicans want is to buoy Democratic spirits before the filing deadlines prior to the midterms close — but this is a real possibility on Tuesday.