The Fight for a Disappearing District in Pennsylvania

Both parties look for lessons from 18th District special election

Democrat Conor Lamb led late Tuesday in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District late Tuesday, but the race was too close to call. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images file photo)
Democrat Conor Lamb led late Tuesday in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District late Tuesday, but the race was too close to call. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images file photo)
Posted March 13, 2018 at 5:05am

MOON, Pa. — Millions of dollars in outside spending and national media attention have been directed at Tuesday’s special election in southwestern Pennsylvania — all for a district that likely won’t even exist come November.

Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, is locked in a tight race with Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone in a district President Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016. Whoever wins the 18th District race will head to Congress, but he will run for a full term in a newly configured district, thanks to the state Supreme Court imposing a new congressional map ahead of the midterm elections.

“It’s kind of lame, to be honest with you,” Joseph Obenour, a 47-year-old nurse from Cuddy, said of the changing districts after a rally for Lamb in Moon Township last week. 

But the prospect of a temporary victory wasn’t dampening Obenour’s resolve, or his willingness to knock on doors with the Service Employees International Union. 

“It feels good to be for the underdog, against big business, against big money, against the one-percenters,” said Obenour, who was sporting a purple “Health Care Workers for Lamb” T-shirt. “And even if it’s short-lived and it’s only for a few months, it’s worth it.”

Obenour’s passion despite the changing district lines points to another theme of this special election: It’s about more than the 18th District.

The race could present broader lessons for both parties, which have been embroiled in divisive fights about what it means to be a Democrat or Republican. And they’re also watching for any signs of what’s to come in the impending midterms.

Watch: Three Things to Watch in Pennsylvania’s Special Election

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Redistricting confusion

Confusion over the new district lines has not appeared to weaken resolve to win the special election on either side, according to strategists from both parties in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

Most of the 18th District’s population will be in the new 14th District, though the new congressional map is still being challenged in the courts. The new seat tilts more heavily toward Republicans. Under the new lines, Trump would have carried the district by 29 points.

Saccone is already circulating petitions in the new 14th district, since signatures are due on March 20. Lamb has also said he would run for a full term in Congress this year, but he hasn’t said from where.

Democratic operatives expect Lamb to run against GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus in a neighboring district, where Lamb now lives and which became more favorable to Democrats under the new map.

Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus suggested the confusion over redistricting could dampen turnout for Republicans.

“It’s just one more excuse for a Republican voter not to go to [the] polls,” he said.

But Washington County GOP Chairman Mark Hrutkay said redistricting wasn’t on most voters’ minds.

“Most people don’t understand redistricting, period,” Hrutkay said, adding, “Right now it’s really a non-factor in turnout and how this election’s going to go.”

The same county’s Democratic chairwoman, Linda Andrews, said her office had been fielding calls from voters about whether redistricting would affect the special election. Washington County is in the new 14th District, where Lamb is not expected to run for a full term.

“We just keep telling people, ‘One step at a time. Focus on the issue right now, focus on the prize right now. We have to win this election and then we go from there,’” Andrews said.

The special election could be a symbolic one for Democrats, who recognize Lamb will likely not run in their new district, said former Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire. He represented a similar southwestern Pennsylvania district from 2007 to 2013.

“You can elect Conor Lamb to send a message to Donald Trump, and that’s probably what this is all about,” Altmire said.

‘Candidates matter’

Even though Tuesday’s victory for either candidate would be short-lived, both parties are looking for signs of what the midterms will bring.

Democrats and Republicans recited the same adage when asked what they could learn from the race: Candidates matter.

That lesson comes at a divisive time for Democrats, who will battle in upcoming primaries over which candidates should advance to the general election: stridently liberal candidates or more moderate ones who could have crossover appeal.

Lamb has cast himself as a centrist Democrat and has the support of organized labor, which has helped keep the race close.

“These are exactly the kind of Democrats I had in my district,” Altmire said of the electorate. “They are conservative Democrats who quickly will turn and vote Republican if they are unhappy with the Democratic candidate. If you give them somebody from the far left … they’re going to lose.”

Altmire knows the region’s dynamics well. After being elected to the 4th District for three terms, he was hit by the 2012 redistricting process, which left the commonwealth with one less seat. Altmire was then pitted against fellow Democratic Rep. Mark Critz in what is currently, at least for the time being, the 12th. Critz beat Altmire, but went on to lose to Rothfus. 

Republicans have increasingly painted the election as one driven by the candidates, since the race is close despite GOP outside groups spending nearly $10.1 million. Democratic groups have spent only $1.6 million, according to Federal Election Commission documents.

“This is clearly a race about candidate disparity,” said one GOP strategist involved in the race. “It’s an A-plus candidate, honestly, in Conor Lamb versus an F candidate in Saccone and the campaign that has been run.”

The strategist said Saccone’s lackluster fundraising limited his ability to compete. Lamb raised nearly $3.9 million, while Saccone raised $918,000. Because candidates receive more favorable rates for television advertisements than outside groups, Lamb has been able to counter the barrage of negative GOP ads with a number of his own.

Hrutkay, the county GOP chairman, said criticisms of Saccone were “bullshit.” He said the race was close because of the national environment, pointing to a handful of special elections in 2017 where energized Democrats were able to narrow the GOP margins of victory.

Messaging test

Both parties have been able to test parts of their messaging heading into the 2018 midterms.

Lamb has declined to focus his ire on Trump, careful not to alienate the president’s supporters. But his candidacy is channelling anti-Trump energy among Democrats. A Lamb victory could signal Democratic enthusiasm heading into November, even in more traditional GOP areas.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 24,000 in the district, according to figures from the Pennsylvania Department of State. But GOP presidential nominees have carried the seat by double digits in the last three elections, and former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned last year amid scandal, held the seat for 15 years.

“It’s actually a very important election, even going into the midterms coming in the fall,” said Summer Sparks, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom who attended a Lamb rally at a carpenters training center last week. Sparks described herself as a “staunch Democrat.”

“With everything that’s going on in D.C. right now, I really think that we’d be a lot better off if the Democrats could take control of the House and the Senate,” she said. “So getting [Lamb] in is an important step to actually do that.”

Democrats are also arguing the special election shows that touting the Republicans’ tax overhaul is not a winning campaign message for the GOP. 

Republicans view the tax law as a key message for the midterm elections and have aired ads knocking Lamb for not supporting the bill. But recent GOP ads have shifted to focusing on Lamb’s record as a prosecutor.

“For the one hundred Republicans running in districts far less favorable than PA-18, where Trump won by twenty points, this monumental shift should be deeply concerning,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Evan Lukaske wrote in a memo to the press Monday. 

Republicans have also attempted to tie Lamb to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, playing on the candidate’s surname with cartoon ads saying Lamb would be part of Pelosi’s flock. Lamb responded with an ad of his own saying he would not support Pelosi for Democratic leader.

Despite the close race, Republicans contend that linking the Democrat to Pelosi was effective, and signaled that strategy will continue this year.

“We saw a Democratic candidate run a TV ad bashing Nancy Pelosi,” Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Monday. “If that doesn’t show you how toxic she will be for Democrats this cycle, then I don’t know what will.”

Tying Democrats to the national party could resonate with voters like 72-year-old Bill Shuster, no relation to the retiring 9th District Pennsylvania congressman with the same name.

Shuster, a retired Army veteran, used to be a registered Democrat but is now unaffiliated and tends to side with Republicans. He said while he personally likes Lamb, he doesn’t think the Democrat would be independent of party leadership.

“I’ll be with Saccone. I really think Lamb’s better, but I don’t like the party he’s with, Pelosi and the other squirrels,” Shuster said as he ate breakfast at the J&S Diner in Cecil, Pennsylvania, last week.

Shuster, who supports Trump but disagrees with the president’s bombastic style, said Democrats are too obstructive.

“I don’t buy that at all,” Shuster said when asked about Lamb’s commitment not to support Pelosi. “I don’t think he’s going to have a choice.”

While the election could have national strategists reading midterm tea leaves, the candidates have kept their focus on the district.

Lamb has argued he would work with both parties for the betterment of the district. Saccone has said he has the experience to be a successful lawmaker, and he wants to be one of Trump’s “wingmen” in Congress.

The question is which message will win over enough voters in the 18th District on Tuesday. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up