When wave elections happen, more often than not seats are basically given away–either because the incumbent party nominates the wrong candidate, or the incumbent party’s candidate shoots himself in the foot. The latter may be happening in a special election for a House seat in western Pennsylvania. It has Republicans in both Pennsylvania and Washington fearing that they could lose what should be an ultra-safe seat to a Democrat.
In case you missed it, Tim Murphy, the eight-term Republican from Pennsylvania’s 18th District, was forced to resign in October. He’d been caught telling his mistress to get an abortion despite portraying himself as one of the most rabidly anti-abortion members of the House. He’d planned to serve out his term and not run for reelection, but was forced to leave sooner than planned amid reports that working at his office was a nightmare.
Murphy represents a crimson-red district south of Pittsburgh, which mirrors the dramatic swing from red to blue in southwestern Pennsylvania. Historically, whenever a Democrat won Pennsylvania, everything from Pittsburgh to Johnstown was coated blue. But this area of Pennsylvania swung hard to the GOP in the mid-1990s, culminating when Murphy won the seat in 2003 after it was made significantly more Republican in redistricting. While Democrats have 70,000 more registered voters, Murphy never had to break a sweat here; his lowest total was 58 percent of the vote, and he even ran unopposed in 2016. John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump all romped to victory here at the presidential level.
Conventional wisdom suggested that the race should have been decided when state representative Rick Saccone was chosen as the Republican nominee at a convention on November 11. Watch coverage from KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh here.
Saccone represents much of the southwestern portion of the district, and proudly boasts, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.” So it’s not surprising that he’s running as a no-questions-asked conservative. He’s also a former Air Force counterintelligence officer, which should resonate on paper in a district full of veterans. On his campaign Website, he heavily stresses his work to “cut wasteful government spending,” “protect the sanctity of human life,” and “preserve our 2nd Amendment rights.”
But the Democrats scrambled things when they nominated Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine veteran. Watch coverage from KDKA-TV here.
Lamb also comes from a family long prominent in southwestern Pennsylvania; his grandfather served as state senate majority leader in the 1970s, while his uncle is city controller of Pittsburgh. William Green, a longtime political analyst on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, believed that the contrast between Lamb–“a tall, blond, blue-eyed stud of a Marine”–and Saccone couldn’t be more stark.
But Republicans have more concerns about Saccone than just appearance. They’re worried about his fundraising. He was originally planning to run in the Republican primary for Bob Casey’s Senate seat, but only raised $70,000 in eight months. According to one Republican strategist, Saccone has always been an anemic fundraiser, and has never had “a real organization.” That same strategist believes Saccone is “wacky” enough that some Republicans, especially more moderate Republicans closer to Pittsburgh, could stay home.
Indeed, some local Republicans are already making plans in case Saccone loses. They’re pressing state senator Guy Reschenthaler–who, ironically, holds the seat once held by Murphy–to run in the general election in 2018. But other Republicans, like Allegheny County councilman Sam DeMarco, believe that Saccone’s Trump-like image could motivate voters “more than a moderate Republican might.”
But even before there were questions about Saccone, area Democrats were bullish about Lamb’s chances. He seems to already have an in with the local steelworkers and mineworkers; within days of his victory, labor leaders had all but ruled out backing Saccone. He has also stressed many of the issues on which he worked as a federal prosecutor, like the opioid epidemic and sexual assault. In short, he looks like he’s following the blueprint Doug Jones used in Alabama.
Local Democrats also believe they have a ready answer for the inevitable Republican claims that Lamb would be a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi. Lorraine Petrosky, the Democratic chairwoman in Westmoreland County–the bulk of which is in the 18th–told The Washington Post, “He was a Marine. That’s all we have to say.”
While no polling has been released on this race yet, the fact that the Republicans are at all worried about a district they’ve held without serious difficulty for a decade and a half is a sign there’s blood in the water. But in a district this red, Lamb is going to need a lot of help to pull this off. Click here to donate.
(featured image courtesy Lamb’s Facebook)