The Slatest

Democrats Could Score a Major Upset in Pennsylvania Next Month. Don’t Read Too Much Into It.

Democrat Conor Lamb speaks to an audience at the American Legion Post 902 on Jan. 13 in Houston, Pennsylvania.
Democrat Conor Lamb speaks to an audience at the American Legion Post 902 on Jan. 13 in Houston, Pennsylvania.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images.

With less than two weeks to go until the special election for a House of Representatives seat in western Pennyslvania, things are looking about as good as they reasonably could for Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate running in the deep-red district outside of Pittsburgh.

On Tuesday, Lamb reported raising a whopping $3.2 million in the first seven weeks of 2018—that’s far more than the last man to hold the seat raised in any full campaign cycle during his decade and a half in Congress. The Republican in the race, state Rep. Rick Saccone, has not yet released his most recent fundraising total, but no one expects his number to be anywhere near Lamb’s. As of the first of the year, Saccone had raised only about $215,000.

Lamb’s fundraising haul was only the most recent bit of good news for Democrats in a district where they didn’t even bother to field a challenger during the past two elections. Public polls show Saccone with a lead, but only a narrow within-the-margin-of-error one—somewhere between 3 and 6 percentage points, depending on the turnout model. Nonpartisan election handicappers like the Cook Political Report now see the race as a toss-up. And that’s despite the fact that outside Republican groups, panicked by Saccone’s meager fundraising and motivated by the fear of national embarrassment, have poured nearly $5 million into the race.

That Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District is even competitive is truly remarkable. In 2002, Republican Tim Murphy won his first race in the district by 20 percentage points, and then went on to win his next five by an average of 26 points before running unopposed in the last two cycles. (The loudly anti-abortion Murphy resigned from Congress last fall after a local newspaper reported that he had encouraged a woman he had an affair with to have an abortion.) Mitt Romney won the district by 17 percentage points in 2012, and Donald Trump took it by 19 points four years later.

Both sides are pouring money into the race, in the hopes they can eke out a victory and declare it a bellwether. But beware the grand prognostications.

For starters, the March election will have no direct bearing on which party controls the House, either this year or next. That’s because Lamb and Saccone are competing only to serve out the remainder of Murphy’s term, which will run through the end of the year. A Lamb victory would trim the GOP’s advantage in the lower chamber by a seat, sure, but it won’t change the fact that Republicans would still have a 20-plus seat cushion to fall back on.

The winner of the special election also won’t get to celebrate for very long before having to turn around and do this all over again. There is just one week between the special election and the filing deadline to compete in the 2018 Pennsylvania primary, which will take place less than two months later. November is just six months after that.

And that quick turnaround might not even be the biggest problem for these men. While both Lamb and Saccone are adamant that they will seek a full two-year term after this abbreviated one is decided, thanks to the current legal dispute over Pennsylvania’s congressional map, it’s not at all clear what the newly configured district would look like.

Under the map drawn by the state Supreme Court—which is currently being challenged in federal court by Republicans—Lamb’s current home would be in the new 17th Congressional District, an area that appears far friendlier to Democrats than the current version of the 18th, but one that is also home to Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus. The new map would create a similar headache for Saccone as well. His home district will still be called the 18th, but it will include far more of what is now the 14th Congressional District, and with it more Democratic voters, including one in particular: Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle. A victory next month for either Lamb or Saccone would provide a small incumbency bump, but probably not on the level of a multiterm congressman like Rothfus or Doyle. (Either Lamb or Saccone could decide to move to another district to avoid challenging a sitting congressman, but doing so would open them up to obvious political attacks.)

Another reason not to make too much of a Lamb victory, should it happen: It’s doubtful his campaign could be replicated in other parts of the country. For one, Lamb looks like something the DCCC might design in a lab if it wanted to win in a district like this one. He’s a Marine veteran. He talks about Jesus. He goes to gun shows. He’s a fan of fracking and not of Nancy Pelosi. He’s personally against abortion, but for a woman’s right to choose. He’s in favor of tougher background checks but isn’t ready to ban assault weapons. All of that is playing well with voters in the special election, but it might not play so well in a Democratic primary—particularly as an increasing number of candidates do their best Bernie Sanders impressions.

It would also be a mistake to make too much out of a Lamb loss. This race is only one election among many in Trump’s first year in office—and the vast majority of those data points suggest Democrats are in prime position to post big gains this November. There have been more than 90 special elections—state and federal—since Trump became president, and Democrats have beaten expectations in the vast majority of them, on average by about 13 percentage points compared to the past two presidential elections, according to CNN polling expert Harry Enten (formerly of FiveThirtyEight).

So as disappointing as a Lamb loss next month might be for Democrats, especially after getting their hopes dashed in Georgia 10 long months ago, it’s worth remembering that a 3-percentage-point loss in a district that went for Trump by nearly 20 points would still be more than just moral victory. It might just be a sign of a much bigger one on the horizon.