PITTSBURGH — The special congressional election in Pennsylvania appears headed to a recount, with Republicans preparing behind the scenes to cry foul after the vote count showed Democrat Conor Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone by 627 votes.
The GOP is considering challenging the accuracy of voting machines in the district, in addition to confusion over the state's changing congressional map later this year, according to two sources familiar with the process, granted anonymity to discuss ongoing plans that have not been finalized.
State law does not require an automatic recount in congressional races, even when the margin is this close: Lamb currently leads Saccone by 0.2 percentage points, 49.8 percent to 49.6 percent. But Saccone and his allies can request a recount after all the counties have completed their tallying of provisional and overseas military ballots.
One Republican source said the party's legal strategy focused on three main issues thus far: GOP attorneys were allegedly not allowed to witness the tabulation of absentee ballots; changes to the secretary of state’s website caused confusion for voters about their polling locations; and there were internal reports of voters miscasting their ballots when they used touchscreen machines in Allegheny County, which Lamb carried by a 15-point margin.
The source also said it’s not clear yet if Republicans would file in state or federal court.
Lamb has already declared victory, telling supporters at an election-night party in Canonsburg, “It took longer than we thought, but we did it.”
But Republicans on Wednesday, in Washington and here in western Pennsylvania, declined to acknowledge Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine veteran, as the victor.
"Win or lose ... it's too soon to say what's gonna happen," House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press availability on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The Associated Press has not yet declared a winner in the race, citing the state's recount provisions.
Greene County, a largely rural area that makes up the smallest percentage of the district — and the final county to complete its absentee count — reported Wednesday morning, shrinking Lamb's lead by just 14 votes.
Regardless of the eventual victor, the result — an extremely close election in a district President Donald Trump carried by 20 percentage points — is an ominous sign for Republicans about the political environment that awaits them in this year's midterm elections.
There are still some provisional and military ballots to be counted throughout the district. Those are unlikely to unseat Lamb as the leader, but they could continue to shrink his margin.
There aren't many votes left to count: Westmoreland County, which Saccone carried, has remaining provisional and military ballots that could total “up to 100 votes, but that’s a high estimate,” said Beth Lechman, director of elections there.
One of the GOP complaints centers around the state's changing congressional map. The state Supreme Court earlier this year ruled the existing map was gerrymandered by Republicans to such a degree that it violated the state constitution. But because the special-election campaign was already ongoing, the court ruled that it could continue under the old lines.
When the Republican-controlled state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf were unable to agree on new district lines, the state Supreme Court drew its own map and ordered state officers to implement it. That led to the secretary of state's office publishing the new lines on its website, in advance of the state's primary elections this May.
Republicans are preparing to claim those new lines confused voters, both GOP sources said. But it's unclear what legal remedy they could seek during recount proceedings on that issue.
If legal proceedings fail to change the result, and the secretary of state certifies Lamb as the winner, the GOP-led House would then decide whether to seat the Democrat.
The new district lines are also forcing both Lamb and Saccone to consider a new deadline: March 20. That's the filing deadline for the May primaries, and while both men are likely to run for a full term in the fall, it's unlikely they'll be matched in the same district.
Saccone, a state legislator and Air Force veteran, told The Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa., that he would run in the new 14th District, which includes much of the rural counties in the old district, like Greene and Washington. The race has already attracted several potential Republican candidates and is a safer GOP seat.
Lamb hasn’t confirmed yet where he plans to run in November, but he’s expected to move into a district where Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) lives — who saw his home move into a district where the 2016 presidential race was far closer than his old district, or the district where Lamb ran in the special election.
Rachael Bade contributed to this report from Washington.