The closely watched special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District will remain that way for at least a little bit longer. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, but more than 1,000 absentee ballots still to be counted, no major outlet had projected a winner as of midnight. The Associated Press issued an advisory late Tuesday that it would not call the race until Wednesday at the earliest.
There are still roughly 1,400 absentee votes left to be counted, and Democrat Conor Lamb leads Republican Rick Saccone by 579 votes out of more than 225,000 votes cast. Saccone can still make up that deficit, but to do so he will need to win about 70 percent of those outstanding votes—a significantly higher share than he has won so far in those counties. (Update 10:31 am: Lamb declared victory overnight, but Saccone has not conceded the race and Republicans are suggesting they will likely request a recount if the current results hold. As of Wednesday morning, Lamb had a 641-vote lead with only one of the district’s four counties still counting absentee ballots. While no major outlet has declared a winner, NBC News is projecting Lamb as the “apparent winner.“)
If Lamb holds on, it would mark the second time in the past three months that Republicans have failed to win a congressional race in an area that went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. If Saccone pulls out the unlikely comeback, it will save the GOP a humiliating defeat but will do little to ease the nerves of Republican strategists fearing a Blue Wave this November.
Regardless, the payoff for the winning candidate will be relatively small—10 months as the most junior member of Congress. The winner will need to return to the campaign trail immediately, and, thanks to Pennsylvania’s recently redrawn (and still disputed) congressional map, it’s not yet clear what district he’ll be running in or who he’ll be running against.
Nonetheless, both parties invested so heavily in this race that the results will resonate loudly inside their national headquarters, even if the message on both sides is a little muddled. Lamb ran as a proud moderate, but the special election meant he was handpicked by party leaders, not the restive base that has been upending Democratic primaries. If national Democrats now feel a renewed urge to help more moderate candidates in districts they need to flip, they’ll risk further infuriating the left. Meanwhile, given Saccone ran as a mini-Trump, with multiple visits from the president the GOP may rethink how much they want Trump out on the stump, assuming of course they even have that choice.
That this race was even competitive is astounding. 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. Democrats didn’t even both running a challenger in 2014 or 2016. (The loudly anti-abortion Murphy resigned 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 then took it by 19 points four years after that.
On Tuesday night, Republicans were spinning the idea that Saccone actually overperformed, relative to expectations on Tuesday morning. But that’s just spin. Democrats still have good reason to believe that the tide has turned in districts like this all across the country since Trump took office. There have already been more than 90 special elections—state and federal—since Inauguration Day, and Democrats had 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.
In Trump’s first year, Democrats struggled to translate this advantage into actual victories. Republicans won the first five special elections of 2017 to keep control of congressional seats they already held, a streak that included House wins in Montana, where Greg Gianforte prevailed in an at-large race despite body slamming a reporter the day before the election, and in a deep-red district in an affluent Atlanta suburb in Georgia, where the Karen Handel survived a surprising challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff. (Democrats defended the only U.S. House seat—in Southern California—that came up during that time.)
Democrats won the two gubernatorial races held in 2017—in Virginia and New Jersey—but it wasn’t until this past December that the party finally flipped a seat on Capitol Hill, when Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in a Senate special election in Alabama. Like that race, this one included heavy spending and a number of big-name surrogates on both sides. But unlike Moore, Saccone had Trump’s support from the very start; unlike Jones, Lamb wasn’t running against an accused child predator.
Republicans were trying to pin the blame for their embarrassing result on Saccone, even before the first votes were counted. They openly complained about everything from his fundraising to his social media strategy to, in the words of former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller, his “goofy mustache.” Still, Trump tried to drag Saccone across the finish line and appears to have come up short.
Democrats will declare Tuesday’s special election a bellwether. We won’t know if they are right until November, but the far more interesting thing to watch tomorrow will be how the party’s competing wings try to spin the results. Progressives will see Lamb as part of a bumper crop of first-time candidates with compelling life stories that have harnessed anti-Trump anger. The DCCC-types will see Lamb—who won the nomination at a state party convention, not in a primary—as a moderate who won over white, blue-collar voters who can be turned off by anyone who talks too much about the environment, gun control, the minimum wage, or a woman’s right to choose. That fight will play out in Democratic primaries across this country this year, and likely again in 2020.
But if you set aside today’s fanfare and tomorrow’s infighting, it’s not all that clear the race will be much more than a footnote a year from now. Under the map drawn by the state Supreme Court—which is currently being challenged in federal court by Republicans—Saccone’s 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. Lamb’s current home, meanwhile, would be in the new 17th Congressional District, an area that appears far friendlier to Democrats than the district he just won, but one that is also home to Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus. (Lamb has not yet committed to running in the 17th—he could theoretically run in any district in Pennsylvania—but the available signs point that way.) But regardless of where he runs, before he makes it to a general election, Lamb will first need to survive something he did not in the special election: a Democratic primary.