Pennsylvania Special Election Could Be the First Ripple in a Democratic Wave

Rick Saccone is trying to hold a Republican district in Pennsylvania against Democrat Conor Lamb. Photo: Rick Saccone for Congress; Conor Lamb for Congress

2017 was a very good election year for Democrats, whetting the donkey’s appetite for next year’s midterm cycle, in which the party controlling the White House normally loses ground. But there is one more hors d’oeuvre on tap before the big political feast next February: a special congressional election in Pennsylvania on March 13.

As with all but one of the 2017 special congressional elections, this one was produced by a Republican resignation. But this time Donald Trump didn’t cause the vacancy by lifting someone from Congress into his cabinet or some other high office. Veteran GOP congressman Tim Murphy resigned in disgrace in October after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the staunchly right-to-life pol had encouraged an extramarital lover to obtain an abortion.

Normally the GOP nominee for this seat would step right into Murphy’s shoes; he held the western Pennsylvania district (mostly concentrated in suburbs south of Pittsburgh) easily from 2002 through 2016, running unopposed in the last two elections. Both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney won about 58 percent of the vote in PA-18. More anecdotally, the district’s electorate fits the long-standing stereotype of conservative ethnic Democrats trending solidly Republican out of hostility towards cultural liberalism and environmentalism (this is serious coal country).

But while the GOP remains the solid favorite in the March special election, the general political environment makes the outcome far less certain than would normally be the case. Nominating conventions for each party chose wildly contrasting candidates that probably made the race more competitive for Democrats. As local radio station WESA reports, the GOP nominee, state representative Rick Saccone, likes to boast that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Known as a fiery conservative, Saccone has served in the state legislature since 2010. He defeated state Sens. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Jefferson Hills) and Kim Ward (R- Hempfield) to secure his party’s nomination for the March 13 special election …

“[I support] the agenda that people voted in [when Donald Trump was elected president],” Saccone said. “They expect me to go down [to Washington] and fight for it and defend it, and I will. I’ll stand up to whoever is against that because I know that’s what the people want.”

Saccone is not entirely the Trumpian cartoon character his quotes might indicate; in the George W. Bush administration, he served briefly as a diplomat posted to North Korea, and wrote a book about his experiences there.

Meanwhile, Democrats nominated a candidate that one local Republican described as “straight out of central casting:” Marine veteran and former prosecutor Conor Lamb, who has a good political pedigree in the district (his uncle is city controller of Pittsburgh) and no known controversies associated with him. Lamb appears to be a standard-brand centrist Democrat aside from some fuzziness on hot-button issues of concern to PA-18’s socially conservative swing voters, as David Weigel explains:

“I come from a Catholic background, [but] choice is the law of the land,” Lamb said at a short news conference after his [convention] victory. Asked if he opposed taxpayer funding for abortion — something that the Democratic Party platform endorsed in 2016 — he demurred. “A lot of those issues I think we can get into later.”

Lamb, like his party, would prefer to fight the election on the heroin epidemic and on the issues he handled as a prosecutor — including sexual assault. Republicans, growing their numbers in the district, would rather nationalize the race.

Saccone’s Trump-before-Trump self-identification will certainly help Democrats nationalize the race, and the Republican has a reputation as a poor fundraiser. National Democratic groups have not committed to the race just yet, but probably will:

“This is a winnable race,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic consultant in the state. “People are willing to vote for a Democrat, but you have to run a compelling race to do it and Lamb’s profile is perfect for this district.”

Even if Saccone wins, national observers will be looking closely at the margin. If Lamb does reasonably well, it will be all the more reason for Democrats to target slightly more promising districts going into the 2018 general election. And if Lamb wins, Democrats could begin crying, “Surf’s up!” in anticipation of a November wave.

2018 Special Election: First Ripple in a Democratic Wave?