Voters are heading to the polls today to cast their ballots in the special election between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, who are running in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district. But because the district will soon be redrawn, the stakes here have little to do with political power and everything to do with symbolism: A Democratic victory could show how the party can appeal to the white working class—and cause Republicans to rethink their midterms strategy.
“If the Republican candidate wins by five points, it’s much ado about nothing,” Republican strategist Mike DeVanney told me. “If Lamb wins, we’re going to have to do some examining of the type of candidates we nominate and the message we bring to voters.”
Media coverage has framed the election as a referendum on President Trump, but, as I reported last week, Lamb has done his best to avoid Trump-bashing. Instead, the former federal prosecutor and Marine has chosen to stress labor issues and the opioid crisis, and taken a relatively conservative stance on guns. Saccone, a current state representative with a formidable resume as a counter-intelligence officer in the United States Air Force, has pledged to reel in government spending, and aligned himself closely with the president, once describing himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.”
The two are vying to fill the congressional seat vacated by Tim Murphy, the district’s longtime Republican representative. Murphy resigned in October after it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair and asked his mistress to get an abortion. The 18th district, which encompasses parts of Allegheny, Washington, Greene, and Westmoreland Counties, has 70,000 more registered Democrats but still tends to elect Republicans: Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by 20 points in the 2016 presidential election, and Mitt Romney and John McCain both won by similar margins. Murphy, who held the seat for 15 years, ran uncontested in the last two races.
The seat should be easy pickings for Republicans, but for the past month, the polls have been tight. The Cook Political Report recently upped the seat’s rating from “Leans Republican” to “Toss Up.” On Monday morning, a new Monmouth University poll gave Lamb a six-point advantage over Saccone. Republicans are worried, and it shows: GOP-affiliated groups have spent more than $9 million to support Saccone, and Trump has already visited the district twice.
Strategists told me that part of the reason for Lamb’s success so far is local Democrats’ frustration with Trump: They’re fired up and ready to vote, and it’s easier for a party to challenge than to be challenged. But they said that’s only part of the equation. “If the Democrat wins, it’s because he had an individualized message, repudiated [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi, and appealed to blue-collar, white working people again,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Hewitt.
Lamb has made a point to distance himself from Pelosi in response to attacks from Saccone. He’s also stressed his support for local labor unions, while his opponent, Saccone, has long been a proponent of right-to-work legislation. “If [Lamb] wins, it means that it has paid off for candidates to truly listen to the struggles of working Americans,” said Leslie Bond, the legislative director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23 and a self-described Conor Lamb “fangirl.” “He’s a little moderate, he’s not far to the left. I think that’s how we win.” If Lamb loses today, Bond says she’ll keep working to get pro-labor candidates elected, but “inside, we’ll die a little.”
Phil Smith, the director of communications for United Mine Workers of America, thinks that Democrats have for too long neglected labor unions and that a win for Lamb would mean a shift in priorities. “Hopefully for national Democrats, it will send a message to them that if they want to win races in districts like these they need candidates like Mr. Lamb,” Smith told me. “They need candidates who aren’t afraid to stand up for workers’ jobs, coal miners’ jobs—candidates who aren’t afraid to say they support the 2nd Amendment if that’s what they think.”
But Lamb has been criticized in recent weeks by both Democrats and Republicans who think he’s been inconsistent on issues like abortion and gun control—and is merely toeing the line to pick up moderate Republican votes. Some say that’s why he’ll lose. “[Lamb’s] campaign is taking a bet that, by being a little ambiguous, he’s going to be able to appeal to more voters,” said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the campaign. “I tend to think Democrats can be more highly motivated when they have a candidate that stands for something.”
A Pennsylvania-based Republican political consultant, who requested anonymity for the same reason, questioned Lamb’s strategy, too. “While he has said he opposes Nancy Pelosi, does anyone honestly believe he’s going to vote against her?” he asked. President Trump even took a creative whack at the Democrat this weekend, calling him “Lamb the Sham” at a rally. (Although the president has reportedly bad-mouthed Saccone as well.)
The composition of the electorate is a difficult thing to predict any election, but in special elections, it’s even more of a challenge. It’s best to keep an eye on the counties; according to the strategists I spoke with, Lamb would have to get something like 50 percent of the vote in Allegheny County, and more than 40 percent in the other three more rural counties, to take the district. In other words, everything would have to go right. And many of the strategists I spoke with believe Saccone is better positioned today than he was this time last week, after Trump announced steep tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, a pretty popular move here in the heart of steel country. “If Saccone wins in a very close race,” Hewitt said, “it would be hard not to attribute that at least a little to the president’s tariffs.”
Either way, whoever wins today has to run again in November: Pennsylvania’s 18th district, in its current form, will soon be gone. After court-ordered redistricting next year, its lines will be redrawn, and its four counties will be wrenched apart to form new districts. This time next year, all that will remain of PA-18 will be the bittersweet memories of elections past. But Democrats are praying that a win in the district today will be indicative of elections yet to come.