Democrats in 2017 glimpsed an electoral wave heading for the midterm election. Now they have a chance to show how large it could be — by winning a race in the heart of Donald Trump’s Rust Belt base.
A special House election in southwest Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District has turned unexpectedly competitive two months before the March vote, giving Democrats hope they can pull off yet another shock upset in deep Republican territory, following their victory in the Alabama Senate race last month and in a host of other local elections around the country including in a Wisconsin state Senate contest on Tuesday.
“This seat is definitely in play,” said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist. “If the Democrats can even get within single digits here, it will show that the map is expanding.”
Its surprise competitiveness has persuaded the White House to send Trump to appear with Republican candidate Rick Saccone there Thursday, a show of force in a district where the president is still popular. But even as Democrats readily concede that their candidate — former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb — remains an underdog, they say he has a genuine chance to win in a district Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Doing so would represent a high-water mark for the Democratic Party, which ran up big victories last year in dozens of state legislative battles and a marquee governor’s race in Virginia after failing to notch victories in several other congressional special elections. Even Dems’ historic win in an Alabama special election was partially a product of a uniquely weak GOP candidate, making it difficult to assess its significance beyond that state.
But this is different. A victory in solidly Republican Trump territory would set off fire alarms about just how many GOP House seats are in danger this fall.
"He should win," said Ohio-based GOP strategist Mark Weaver, who is not working for Saccone but has spoken with the candidate and expects him to succeed. "This would be a problem if he doesn't win. That would be an indicator that Democratic enthusiasm is continuing to rev up."
The 18th District seat became vacant late last year when eight-term Republican Rep. Tim Murphy resigned after reports that he had encouraged a former mistress to have an abortion. Murphy had cruised to re-election in every recent election, even running unopposed in 2016.
Democrats now say they see a chance of success because, in addition to a favorable climate, they have a politically adept nominee in Lamb. A Marine veteran, Lamb served as an assistant U.S. attorney and hails from a family immersed in politics: His uncle is the controller for the City of Pittsburgh while his grandfather was once a top state senator.
They hope Lamb, 33, represents a favorable contrast from Saccone, who has served in the state House since 2011. He’s even taken on his own party, announcing in January that he thinks House Democrats should replace Nancy Pelosi as leader. His Twitter bio reads, “Marine, prosecutor, patriot, Catholic.”
“This time, it looks like they’ve picked out a relatively moderate Democrat,” said Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant Charlie Gerow, pointing to Lamb’s statements about Pelosi even as he doubted Lamb’s overall ability to win. “He’s much more a Rust Belt Democrat like [Tim] Ryan next door than he is a Bernie Sanders type.”
The energy surrounding Lamb’s candidacy reminds one local Democrat of another congressional upset in western Pennsylvania, when former Democratic Congressman Jason Altmire won his race in 2006 in the state’s nearby 4th Congressional District.
“There’s that same kind of electricity in the atmosphere,” said Mike Butler, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic consultant.
Butler isn’t yet predicting victory, in large part because the district’s demographics don’t favor his party. The district is roughly 95 percent white, preventing Lamb from building on a base of support among non-white voters available to Democrats elsewhere, even in places such as Alabama.
But Democrats say Lamb does have one demographic advantage: the suburbs. The 4th District, especially in the suburbs of Allegheny County, is chock full of more traditional GOP voters — especially women — who, polls show, have rebelled the most against Trump-era Republicanism. Their defections to the Democratic Party helped it win big in 2017, most of all in a competitive governor’s race in Virginia that turned into an unexpected landslide for the Democratic candidate.
“Everyone mistakenly refers to this as a rural district,” Mikus said. “But there are large swathes of voters that reside in typical suburban communities that have turned against the national Republican Party, and national Republican message, and Donald Trump in particular.”
Operatives from both parties estimated that about 45 percent of the vote in March will come from Allegheny County.
Republicans in Washington and Pennsylvania say they expect a relatively close race, but are generally skeptical that a Democrat will win there, even if, as D.C. strategists put it, Lamb looks ideal on paper. They argue that whatever Lamb says about Pelosi, he will still caucus with her — a potent argument with conservative voters.
“It will be a competitive race, but when all is said and done, I think it’s still a Republican seat,” Gerow said.
Still, there are the national dynamics: Progressive activists are only getting more motivated to vote against Trump’s party, and they’re turning out to vote at every level of government. And midterms are often challenging for the president’s party.
Kim Ward, a Republican state senator from the district, said the energy inside the Democratic Party has affected even strongly Republican enclaves such as western Pennsylvania.
“You cannot deny it’s there,” said Ward, who sought the Republican nomination for the race before losing to Saccone. “It’s been over a year since President Trump was inaugurated and there doesn’t seem to be any let up in the amount of anti-Trump resistance. It’s consistent.”
Added one GOP operative from the district: “You have an energetic Democratic turnout, lukewarm Republican turnout, then you have problems with Republican suburban women in the South Hills of Allegheny County. You have a path, it might not be a likely path, but there’s a path you can see to winning if you’re Conor Lamb. Ordinarily, they would have no path.”
Privately, some Republicans offer harsh assessments of Saccone, who unexpectedly won a multi-candidate GOP convention in November. Republicans are particularly worried about his fundraising, which they expect to be underwhelming for a candidate accustomed to uncapped political donations (Pennsylvania campaign finance law, unlike federal rules, allows candidates to collect contributions of unlimited size.)
“Rick Saccone is running a grassroots campaign focused on keeping more money in the pockets of hardworking families,” read a campaign statement in response to that criticism and to broader Democratic hopes for the district. “As a military veteran and state legislator, Rick has spent his life proudly serving his country and championing the values of Southwest Pennsylvania.”
And former Rep. Philip English, who also hails from western Pennsylvania and is a Saccone supporter, said the race was in play for reasons beyond Saccone’s control.
“The challenge isn’t Rick Saccone; it is the national environment, which is very divisive,” he said, though he still expects a Republican win.
A number of major conservative outside groups are investing, and national Republicans, from Trump on down, are taking every precaution to ward off what would be a devastating loss. Saccone is doing fundraisers with GOP members of Congress, including one with National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers in Washington on Wednesday, an event first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by McClatchy.
Some Democrats say they are nervous that, despite Lamb’s momentum, Democratic groups have thus far still declined to spend on his behalf. But they’ve put money on losing battles before.
Democrats last year lost a slew of competitive special House elections in former GOP strongholds, including races in Kansas, Montana, and — most memorably — a contest in suburban Atlanta that drew tens of millions of dollars in spending. In each, the national party had to decide whether it would use valuable resources to help the Democratic candidate in races they viewed as longshots. (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did eventually spend in all three, though its investments in Kansas and Montana were comparatively far less than its spending in Georgia.)
In Pennsylvania, there’s not much time left to decide.
A spokesman for House Majority PAC said the group is “continuing to monitor the race in real time” and “has the potential to be competitive.” The DCCC is also assessing whether to spend in the race.