What’s Really at Stake in Pennsylvania’s Special Election?

Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, speaks at a campaign rally with United Mine Workers of America at the Greene County Fairgrounds on Sunday in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania’s 18th district, speaks at a campaign rally with United Mine Workers of America at the Greene County Fairgrounds on Sunday in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The policy stakes in Pennsylvania’s special election on Tuesday are about as low as you can get. Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone are competing to be the most junior member of Congress for less than ten months, after which this western Pennsylvania district will no longer exist. The GOP will still control the House during that time, regardless of the outcome. And the winner will need to immediately return to the campaign trail, where his path to a full term will almost certainly run through a primary challenger, a multiterm incumbent, and a newly redrawn district.

Yet the outcome of the race does matter in the bigger picture, mostly because everyone is acting like it does. Both Republicans and Democrats have poured their time, energy, and resources into this race in the hopes they can eke out a victory and declare it a bellwether. And while that doesn’t mean the race will actually prove to be one, all that spending and stumping has turned it into a high-profile test of how each side’s message is playing today. Both parties will take whatever lesson they learn—or think they have learned—from this deep-red, working-class district and carry it into the midterms.

Reacting without overreacting may prove difficult, given the investment. Outside GOP groups, panicked by Saccone’s meager fundraising and fearing national embarrassment, have spent more than $9 million on this race. Outside Democratic groups have spent far less, but individual donors—many from outside the district—have given nearly $4 million to Lamb.

Both parties have also sent in their top surrogates. National Democrats have been reluctant to intervene too closely with Lamb’s campaign, but the party’s resident white-guy whisperer, Joe Biden, appeared with Lamb last week to bolster his case with the kind of working-class voters who make up much of the district, which spans from suburban Pittsburgh to the West Virginia border. The former vice president offered up a personal endorsement that other candidates will have trouble capturing: “He reminds me of my son Beau.”

Meanwhile, the president himself has staked some political capital on Saccone. Donald Trump made his second campaign stop for the Republican on Saturday night, and while he offered only tepid praise, the president’s mere presence means the results will be closely watched as the party considers how to deploy its most polarizing force this year. Several members of Trump’s inner circle have paid their own visits, including Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, and even Donald Jr. and Ivanka.

The parade of Trump officials hasn’t moved the needle much for Saccone, so the White House also brought along some pork. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a surprise visit to the area in his official capacity last month to announce a $300 million national program to reclaim abandoned coal mines, about $56 million of which is to be spent in Pennsylvania. The Trump administration was careful to hold the event just outside the district line, but Saccone was right there beside Zinke and one of those big novelty checks.

And, in case that doesn’t work, Republicans have been sharpening their knives to stab Saccone in the back. A number of anonymous GOP officials last week painted Saccone, a state representative, as an uncharismatic political rube who has required the national party to hold his hand on everything from messaging to fundraising. While that very well may be true, the pre-emptive public defense suggests they remain terrified of Tuesday’s outcome.

That Pennsylvania’s 18th District is even competitive is truly remarkable. In 2002, Republican Tim Murphy won his first race in the district by 20 points and then went on to win his next five by an average of 26 points, before running unopposed in the past 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 points in 2012, and Donald Trump took it by 19 points four years later.

Yet the special election looks like a toss-up today. Gravis, which has been tracking the race for months, has seen Saccone’s advantage fall from double digits into the margin of error in just three months, and now most models have Lamb with a lead.

The close race has Democrats wondering whether Lamb could be a model for how to win in other Rust Belt districts. As I noted last month, Lamb looks like something the DCCC might design in a lab to win in a district like this one. He’s a Marine veteran. He talks about Jesus. He goes to gun shows. He’s speaks fondly of fracking but not of Nancy Pelosi. He’s pro-union but does not support raising the federal minimum wage to $15. 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 rifles. And like his opponent, he’s even voiced qualified support for Trump’s new tariffs on steel and aluminum.

All of that has played well in western Pennsylvania, but it does raise the question of whether Democrats would be able to replicate Lamb’s campaign elsewhere. Candidates like Lamb are difficult to find, and they’re not necessarily the ones who are most likely to emerge from a competitive primary process in districts that are conservative but not quite as dark red as this one, including in Texas and Iowa.

Beware, then, of anyone offering grand prognostications on Tuesday night. If you’re looking for a takeaway from Pennsylvania, the biggest one may be that candidates still matter. Trump’s unpopularity certainly put this deep-red district in play, but it’s Lamb’s strength as a candidate that has made it a nail-biter. That doesn’t bode well for Republicans, who have to defend a slew of open seats and have struggled to recruit top-tier candidates, while Democrats have a crop of energized hopefuls. That disparity in itself won’t guarantee a Blue Wave this fall, of course. But it will be the latest sign in a string of them that point to the possibility.