CANONSBURG, Pa. — Voters went to the polls Tuesday for a special congressional election in the heart of western Pennsylvania Trump country that could deliver a gut-punch to Republicans facing an increasingly hostile midterm environment.
Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine veteran, is squaring off against Rick Saccone, a Republican state legislator and Air Force veteran. The pair is running to replace former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), who announced his resignation amid a sex scandal last year. Polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.
For Republicans, it’s been an all-out push to drag Saccone across the finish line. President Donald Trump rallied in the district twice, hoping to pump up GOP turnout, while Republican outside groups poured more than $10 million into the race. Other surrogates from the Trump orbit — like Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway — also visited the predominately white district, which stretches from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the coal fields at the West Virginia border.
A loss for the GOP here — in a district Trump won by 20 points in 2016, and in a state that served as the backbone of his 2016 victory — should “make Republicans everywhere nervous,” said Tom Davis, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“If they win, a lot of people will look at this — see that the Democrats won in a Trump seat — and they’ll say, ‘The Democrats will retake the House, so let’s send them more money,’” said Davis, the former Virginia congressman who led the NRCC in the 2000 and 2002 election cycles. “It’ll be overhyped and over-analyzed, but it will generate momentum and money for Democrats.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping for the victory that eluded them in nearly every other House special election in 2017, as they chip away at their 24-seat deficit in the House.
Public, pre-election polling showed Lamb and Saccone locked in a tight race. A Monmouth University poll released Monday found Lamb with a single-digit lead in the final stretch of the campaign.
Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine, cast himself as a centrist Democrat who rejected Nancy Pelosi’s leadership and demurred on restricting gun rights — a strategy that Democrats hope will attract moderate and independent voters in a district that traditionally backs Republicans.
He’s also acknowledged that his voters “overwhelmingly want me to work with the president, where it benefits us here in western Pennsylvania,” Lamb said Tuesday at a polling place in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, adding, “I’ll be more than happy to do that.”
Despite Lamb's rhetoric, GOP groups insisted that he would be a reliable Democratic vote in Washington. Congressional Leadership Fund played off of Lamb’s last name, promising voters that he’d join “Pelosi’s liberal flock.” The NRCC hammered Lamb on his tenure as a federal prosecutor, accusing him of getting plea bargains for drug dealers.
America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC that dropped nearly $1 million on the race, said Lamb “wants you to believe that he won’t side with D.C. liberals — but unfortunately for Lamb, we know the truth,” in one TV ad.
But Lamb’s favorability ratings didn’t take the kind of hit for which Republicans had hoped. The Monmouth University poll found that a majority of voters, 53 percent, still view Lamb favorably, while 33 percent view him unfavorably.
Lamb said he believes that so much negativity may have backfired for Republicans, as “a lot of people are looking forward to when they don’t see the TV ads any more after Tuesday,” Lamb said in an interview with POLITICO over the final weekend of the campaign.
Saccone, however, said on Fox News Tuesday morning that he believes his campaign has “outed [Lamb] on several issues, like guns and abortion,” which proves that “if he were to get there, he would vote with the Democratic Party 100 percent.”
Saccone, whose legislative seat overlaps with the congressional district, struggled to raise serious money for the race and drew sharp criticism from national Republicans.
The winning candidate on Tuesday will finish the remainder of Murphy's unexpired term, until the new Congress convenes at the start of next year. But the court-ordered redrawing of the state's congressional map means that Lamb and Saccone find their homes in new, and different, districts for the midterm elections later this year.