PITTSBURGH — Republicans want to avoid an embarrassing loss in Trump country, Democrats are hoping for a narrative-setting victory — and it’s all for a special election in a district that won’t exist in a few months.
Tuesday’s results in the race between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb will provide clues on the midterm season ahead, specifically how bad it might be for President Donald Trump and the GOP. Trump carried the district by 20 points in 2016; a loss in the special election would disastrous to the party’s fading hopes of holding the House.
In response, Republican outside groups have unleashed millions in TV ads to damage Lamb, who’s cast himself as a centrist Democrat and vowed not to back Nancy Pelosi if he’s elected.
A Monmouth University poll released Monday showed Lamb with a single-digit lead. So far, Democrats have largely outperformed turnout in regular and special elections throughout the last year, and Lamb’s team is hoping that holds.
Here are POLITICO’s seven things to watch in Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. Polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
Democratic enthusiasm, once again
Democrats — from Virginia to Texas — have voted at historic rates in the last year. That continued enthusiasm in southwestern Pennsylvania is a key element to Lamb’s success: If the pattern of higher rates of Democratic turnout hold, the Monmouth poll shows his lead swelling to 6 points, versus just a 2-point advantage under a more conservative turnout scenario.
Lamb isn't worried.
“Our people would drive through a rainstorm or a snowstorm to get to the polls,” Lamb said in an interview with POLITICO on Saturday, calling the momentum "palpable." (Some light snow is likely on Tuesday, but only minor accumulations, if any, are in the forecast.)
This traditionally blue-collar district is ancestrally Democratic — the party has a 6-point registration edge in the district — with a solid block of union-affiliated voters. But it's voted reliably Republican over the past decade. Former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy — who resigned amid a sex scandal last year — held the seat for 15 years, with Democrats not even fielding a candidate in 2016 or 2014. At the presidential level, Mitt Romney won the district by double digits in 2012, and Trump crushed it here in 2016.
Republicans are banking on Trump’s multiple visits to the district, along with a stream of top surrogates, to energize the base on behalf of Saccone. The president, who called Saccone a “very fine human being,” urged voters at his Saturday night rally to “vote like crazy” on Tuesday.
But if GOP voters sit it out, you can expect questions about Trump’s ability to activate his own coalition for other down-ballot candidates.
County by county
To win, Lamb needs to run up his totals in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh bleeds into the suburbs — the bluest part of the 18th Congressional District. In particular, former state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn said to watch the southern half of the district, which leans more conservative.
“If Saccone does poorly there in southern Allegheny right out of the gate,” that’s a “bad sign for him,” Burn said, adding that Lamb’s political family, who hails from this area, has built up name recognition there “that’s well-respected by both parties.” In the 1970s, Lamb’s grandfather served as the Democratic leader in the state Senate, and his uncle is Pittsburgh’s city controller.
But Saccone’s state legislative district, which he’s represented for almost a decade, overlaps with these Allegheny County suburbs, so Republicans believe he won’t cede as much ground here as Lamb’s team hopes. Saccone must also run up his margin in the three largely rural counties: Westmoreland, Washington and Greene.
Lamb has also made a push for these rural areas, opening campaign offices in all four counties. He’s also spent a lot of time in Greene County, home to a lot of coal miners who were “really anti-Hillary,” but are “open to Conor,” said Rich Yakubic, a 67-year-old member of the United Mine Workers of America, who attended Lamb’s rally in Waynesburg, Pa., on Sunday.
First electoral test of tax reform messaging
Republicans believe that tax reform will be a signature issue for maintaining their majority in 2018, which will be put to its first electoral test in Pennsylvania.
But Republicans have backed away from using that line of attack against Lamb in TV ads in recent weeks. From Feb. 4 to Feb. 11, roughly two-thirds of broadcast TV ads from Saccone’s campaign, Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee dealt with taxes, according to a POLITICO analysis of Advertising Analytics data. For the week of Feb. 18, that dropped to 36 percent, and to 14 percent the week after. Since the beginning of March, tax ads have been essentially non-existent.
Instead, those groups are opting to focus on Lamb’s tenure as a federal prosecutor, accusing of him negotiating plea bargains for drug dealers.
Do tariffs matter here?
Trump announced tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, a move that should appeal to areas of western Pennsylvania. The president touted those tariffs in his Saturday night rally, emphasizing them again in a tweet on Monday as a reason to back Saccone, who will “be much better for steel and business.”
But both candidates support Trump’s tariffs, making the announcement a bit of a wash in the district. And the polling finds little impact on the race: According to the Monmouth poll, 96 percent of voters said the president’s tariffs decision hasn’t cause them to change their choice of candidate. Three percent said the tariffs make them more likely to vote for Saccone, while 1 percent said they are more likely to back Lamb.
Guns, progressive liberals and centrist Democrats
Both parties have handled the debate over gun rights in unexpected ways.
Lamb has tried to strike a more moderate tone. He's demurred on more robust restrictions on gun ownership. But his campaign is testing whether support for stronger background checks can work in a conservative district, running an eleventh-hour advertisement touting his efforts "to keep guns from criminals and people in need of mental health treatment" and calling Saccone "so extreme he's fought to eliminate Pennsylvania's background check system to buy a gun."
Republicans, meanwhile, hope to chip away at Lamb’s support among hardcore liberals by spotlighting his support for some gun rights in mailers — a strategy outside groups could use elsewhere to meddle in crowded Democratic primaries. “Thank you Conor Lamb for opposing gun restrictions,” one Congressional Leadership Fund mailer says.
Burn, the former state Democratic Party chairman, insisted the tactic “doesn’t work here because Democrats will see through it,” he said. “You’re in western Pennsylvania, so there’s a lot of gun owners out here. Democrats get that.”
The Republican cavalry
Republican outside groups are trying to pull Saccone across the finish line. Total outside spending in the race currently stands at $12.5 million, with the vast majority of that total, more than $10.6 million, coming from GOP-aligned groups.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $3.5 million. Congressional Leadership Fund, the leading GOP super PAC for House races, has spent $3.4 million.
Saccone has needed the help. As of Feb. 21, Lamb has outspent Saccone by a 5-to-1 margin, $3.1 million to $615,000.
If Saccone wins on Tuesday, Republicans will take heart that their attack lines — crime, immigration, linking Democratic candidates to Nancy Pelosi — still work in GOP-leaning districts, though the party has to spend big money to get those messages out there.
But if Lamb wins, it will signal to Republicans that the political environment is so hostile that the party can’t hold a seat Trump won by 20 points, even after spending eight figures.
The disappearing district
Not only is Tuesday's election only for the remaining nine months of Murphy's unexpired term, the 18th District won't even exist next week, the filing deadline in Pennsylvania for the 2018 midterm elections.
The state Supreme Court struck down the existing congressional map earlier this year, ruling that it was so gerrymandered by Republicans that it violated the state constitution. The court drew a new map that splits the homes of Lamb and Saccone into different districts. (Republicans in the state are appealing the new map.)
After the special election, Saccone said he plans to run in the newly created 14th District, a Republican-leaning seat that covers rural, southwestern counties. Lamb, meanwhile, is expected to challenge Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) in a slightly more competitive seat.
Republicans believe defeating Lamb on Tuesday would be a potentially fatal blow to the Democrat's chances of beating Rothfus in the fall, while a Lamb victory in the special election would portend a competitive — and expensive — member-versus-member race.
In an interview, Lamb insisted that he’s “not grappling” with the new map yet.
“The courts haven’t resolved anything with the new maps, so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Lamb said.
Kevin Robillard contributed to this report from Arlington, Va.