Former prosecutor won a Trump-backing congressional district
by Andrew Millman
On Tuesday, March 13th, Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district held a special election to replace former Representative Tim Murphy, who resigned last October. Murphy, a member of the Republican Party, had reportedly encouraged his mistress to abort a pregnancy and had several other ethical issues. The sex scandal had been a brief embarrassment for the party of family values and particularly for Murphy, who had claimed to be pro-life. House Speaker Paul Ryan and the rest of Congressional Republican leadership quickly convinced Murphy to resign, and the incident was quickly forgotten. The district was not expected to be in contention, because Donald Trump had won by over twenty points in the 2016 presidential election, and the Cook Partisan Voter Index, which measures the partisanship of congressional districts, rated the district as R+11. The eighteenth district is composed of the affluent Pittsburgh suburbs within Allegheny County and three predominantly-white counties in southwestern Pennsylvania on the state border with West Virginia. The district had been gerrymandered to elect a Republican congressman in 2011 when the Republicans controlled the state government after the 2010 midterm wave election. Just a few weeks before the special election, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the gerrymandered congressional districts violated the state constitution and created a new district map for the midterm elections, effectively eliminating the district. However, the special election went forward to choose who would represent the district’s constituents for the next year.
The Republicans chose state legislator Rick Saccone, who had been in public office for several years and won his seat from an incumbent Democrat, while the Democrats chose former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb. As the race tightened, national Republicans frequently criticized Saccone as a bad candidate with a “porn stache” and attempted to portray Lamb as really a conservative, because he is pro-gun, pro-tariffs, and anti-Pelosi. He is also personally pro-life, but pro-choice when it comes to public policy. However, this misses the fact that Lamb was against the Republican tax bill, supports entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, and pro-ACA, in addition to supporting gay marriage and most other major liberal litmus tests. Lamb tailored his policy agenda to fit his constituency and focused more on the values and culture that he shared with his constituents, having been born and raised within the district. He was able to differentiate himself enough from the national Democratic brand, which is toxic in places like Southwestern Pennsylvania, to pull off one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory, perhaps only rivaled by Doug Jones’s victory in the Alabama special election.
The race went down to the wire and was incredibly close. Lamb defeated Saccone by just over six hundred votes, or about 0.2% of the roughly 227,000 votes cast. Late in the night, Lamb was declared the apparent winner by most major media outlets, but a recount and legal challenges are expected from Saccone and the Republicans. Saccone did not concede on the night of the election and remained defiant, walking off stage to Eminem’s “Not Afraid,” which was…something. Lamb won by increasing Hillary Clinton’s margin among the affluent Pittsburgh surbanites, winning back many white working-class voters that the Democrats lost to Trump, and also bringing new voters to the polls. Lamb’s victory was seen as a major rebuke of President Trump by the national media. Trump is still deeply unpopular across the country, and his multiple campaign trips to the district did not help Saccone and may have even hurt his candidacy. With Trump’s unpopularity, Congressional Republicans face a dauting task ahead of them in trying to maintain their hold on both the Senate and the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections. There are almost 150 congressional districts across the country that Trump won by less than his margin the Pennsylvania’s 18th district.
While the district that Lamb just won will not exist this time next year, Conor Lamb will be an incumbent congressman, and will run in a newly-created district that is leans much more towards Democrats and includes more of the Pittsburgh suburbs. Saccone, meanwhile, plans to run again for another district that will be slightly-less Republican than the district he just lost to Lamb. Despite this, it is very likely that these two political enemies will both be serving in Congress together this time next year. The election result is just the latest sign that a “blue wave” could potential come in the 2018 midterms, in which Democrats are poised to retake both the House and Senate, as well as multiple governorship and state legislatures.