A month ago, when I went to western Pennsylvania to cover the special election in the state’s 18th district, the narrative seemed clear enough. Republican Rick Saccone was an impressive man but a somewhat plain candidate who was lagging behind in fundraising and associating himself with the president; Democrat Conor Lamb was a telegenic up-and-comer who was out-raising Saccone and wanted to to focus on local issues. But Lamb had to walk a political tightrope to keep national Democrats happy while not alienating the conservative-leaning voters, national Republican groups were spending enough money and providing enough infrastructure to compensate for Saccone’s lackluster campaign, and Donald Trump and Mike Pence — both popular in western Pa. — were visibly involved in the race. It was enough to make Saccone the favorite, if not an overwhelming one.
With the election four days away, the race now looks like a toss-up. A month ago, public and internal polls showed Saccone with a consistent lead in the mid single digits. But the latest polls are mixed: Emerson (released March 3) puts Lamb up 3 percent; Gravis (released March 5) puts Saccone up by the same margin. Another poll from RABA research (the credibility of which New York Times elections guru Nate Cohn doubts) gives Lamb a four-point lead, while a Monmouth poll is still to come.
The district has been heavily Republican since the George W. Bush presidency, so the national media has perked up at the prospect of a shocking upset. (The top headline on the Drudge Report yesterday was “ANXIETY IN PENNSYLVANIA.”) The national GOP, meanwhile, has shifted into preemptive damage-control mode, with several national party officials trashing Saccone in a Wednesday Politico story.
It’s been clear for months that Lamb is running a superior campaign. He continues to out-raise Saccone, and has successfully cultivated a reputation for being a moderate (though on some issues that is a pretense). In terms of candidate quality, while both candidates boast impressive accomplishments, Lamb does a better job of exuding his own. Saccone has made little reference to his one-year stint negotiating nuclear policy in North Korea, for instance. But the gaps in campaign organization and and candidate quality are not the entire story.
Saccone’s path to victory is turning out Trump voters. He’s running on a down-the-line Trumpian agenda, has gone out of his way to associate with the president, and has received ample support from the White House. None of this, it seems, is getting the job done (and advertisements touting tax reform were even less effective). To win, Lamb won’t just need strong turnout from loyal Democrats — he’ll need to swing Trump voters from the district’s suburbs to his side. The 18th district, overwhelmingly white, spans Pittsburgh suburbs, working-class boroughs in the east, and ramshackle coal towns to the west. It’s the type of district the Trump GOP will need to win if it is to remain in power. National observers surely would view a Lamb win as a warning flare for the Republican party come November — and they wouldn’t be wrong.