WASHINGTON — The special congressional election in Pennsylvania is too close to call.
With nearly 90 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night, Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly leads Republican Rick Saccone 50 percent to 49 percent, or 91,687 votes to 89,194 votes. But much of the vote is still outstanding in key swing areas of Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional District, pointing to a photo finish.
The race is being closely watched a pulse check on the political health of President Donald Trump ahead of November’s crucial midterm elections,
But this race was never supposed to be competitive.
In fact, there are 114 Republican-held House seats more competitive than Pennsylvania’s 18th, based on the Cook Political Report’s partisan voting index, according to a Democratic tabulation.
It flew under the radar for months because no one – most of all Democrats – thought they had a chance. The western Pennsylvania district is in the heart of “Trump country,” as the president himself dubbed it Saturday, and it voted overwhelmingly Republican in the past three presidential elections.
The district was gerrymandered to guarantee easy reelections to its former occupant, Tim Murphy, who was forced to resign last year after it was revealed that the pro-life lawmaker had pressured his mistress to have an abortion.
But Lamb, propelled by the national anti-Trump tailwind, has steadily gained in recent polls.
Republicans sounded the alarm as early as January and began dumping millions of dollars into the race to boost Saccone.
With two visits to the district, Trump led a parade of high-profile surrogates for Saccone, underscoring both how invested the White House and party leaders felt in the race, and how nervous they were about its outcome.
National Democrats, on the other hand, kept their distance. Determined not to repeat the fiasco of last year’s special election in Georgia, when their multi-million-dollar intervention ended up tainting their candidate in the eyes of conservative voters, they gave Lamb room to define himself.
Drawing on his background as a Marine and former federal prosecutor, Lamb disowned Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and staked out positions on abortion, guns and fracking that hewed closer to the GOP.
But Lamb also embraced the classics of the Democratic playbook, hammering Saccone for allegedly wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare, and uniting Pittsburgh powerful unions behind him in a way no Democrat had before in that district.
While the district will soon no longer exist, thanks to a recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and one House seat is not worth much in 2018 Washington, the race was nonetheless freighted with real consequences for both parties as they gear up for a crucial midterm election.