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By David Weigel, Elise Viebeck and Sean Sullivan,
MT. LEBANON, Pa. — Democrats stood Wednesday on the verge of a monumental win in a U.S. House special election that became a test of President Trump’s political clout.
While the race was still too close to call, Democrats were declaring victory as their candidate, Conor Lamb, clung to a narrow lead over Republican Rick Saccone. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, issued a statement saying, “Lamb’s win proves that Pennsylvanians want leaders who put the lives of people ahead of party politics.”
Lamb said in a televised interview that voters delivered a clear message — they wanted leaders in Washington to work together to help them. He reiterated his desire to replace Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) with a new House Democratic leader and was not hostile toward Trump or his supporters.
“I think we need to sweep some new people in there,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” speaking of House leaders in both parties.
Officials are tallying up the final absentee and provisional ballots, but with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Lamb earned 49.8 percent of votes cast and Saccone earned 49.6 percent, according to the Associated Press. The AP said the race was too close to project a winner. A recount is possible if the candidates are separated by 0.5 percentage points or less.
Shortly before midnight, Saccone told his supporters that “it’s not over yet.”
A little more than an hour later, Lamb took the stage at his party in Canonsburg to declare victory.
“Well, it took a little longer than we thought, but we did it,” said Lamb. “You did it! You did it!”
While the number of outstanding absentee ballots is larger than the gap between Lamb and Saccone, Democrats ended election night confident that Saccone would not win them by a large enough margin to pull ahead. The National Republican Congressional Committee said it was confident of a Saccone victory “after every legal vote is counted.”
Lamb, 33, had waged an energetic campaign in the district that Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016 but that opened up after the Republican incumbent was felled by scandal. Republicans cited that scandal, along with the lackluster campaign of their nominee, Rick Saccone, to minimize the closeness of the race. The district itself will disappear this year, thanks to a court decision that struck down a Republican-drawn map.
But led by the White House, Republicans had elevated the race to a high-stakes referendum on the president and the GOP. Trump made two appearances with Saccone, including a Saturday-night rally in the district, and his son Donald Trump Jr. stumped with Saccone on Monday. The president repeatedly linked his brand to Saccone.
“The Economy is raging, at an all time high, and is set to get even better,” the president tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!”
Republican campaign committees and super PACs spent $10.7 million to help Saccone, more than five times as much as their Democratic rivals, according to Federal Election Commission records filed Monday night.
Thanks to the court’s scrambling of the congressional map, both Lamb and Saccone may well become candidates in new districts for the November midterm election before a winner is declared in this 18th Congressional District race. Candidates must collect and file 1,000 signatures for those races by March 20 — the day that some overseas ballots in Tuesday’s race will be counted.
The district, a stretch of suburbs and small towns that was drawn to elect a Republican, was not the sort of place that Democrats had been expected to make competitive this year. Lamb’s coalition pulled together suburban liberals, wayward Republicans and traditional Democrats who had drifted from the party on cultural issues.
The tight race added to Republican woes on a day that began with the surprise firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a string of related dismissals. Republicans who hoped to fight the Pennsylvania race on the growing economy, and on the president’s new tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, found the White House frequently alienating some of the voters they needed.
As voters made their decisions Tuesday, Trump loomed large in the minds of many.
Amelia Fletcher, a registered independent from Moon Township, cast her first-ever ballot for Saccone because she likes Trump’s agenda and believes he will support it.
“I really don’t appreciate how he talks, but I like what he’s doing now to help us out,” the 18-year-old high school senior said of Trump.
Several voters who said they were Republicans cast their ballots for Lamb — and against the president.
After casting her vote in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, dental hygienist Janet Dellana said she had been outraged to see Trump call for arming teachers instead of limiting access to semiautomatic weapons after the deadly school shooting in Florida.
“He flip-flops on everything, but in the end, he caters to the extreme right,” said Dellana, 64. “I am a registered Republican, but as this party continues to cater to the extreme right, they push me left.”
Tim Lacey, a 69-year-old registered Democrat, said Saccone’s support for Trump overcame any loyalty to the Republican, his fellow church member and a former customer of his construction business.
“I know Rick Saccone,” said Lacey, who lives in nearby Elizabeth Township. “He’s not a golfing buddy, but he’s a good man. But anyone who supports Trump isn’t for me.”
The district — which Saccone himself had called “Trump country” — had been the sort of place where Democrats struggled to compete. While registered Democrats slightly outnumbered registered Republicans, many of those Democrats bolted from their national party during Obama’s presidency.
Lamb, a first-time candidate from a storied local political family, as well as a former Marine and federal prosecutor, became a natural, if cautious, politician. He was personally antiabortion but opposed to new abortion restrictions; he supported the Second Amendment but favored stronger background checks.
Saccone, a four-term state legislator with a long military and academic résumé, struggled to unite the Trump or Murphy coalitions. Labor unions, with more than 80,000 members in the district, had sometimes endorsed Murphy. They united quickly against Saccone, a supporter of “right to work” legislation who did not bother to ask the state AFL-CIO for an endorsement.
On the ground, unions ran an aggressive turnout operation, winning back many members who had backed Trump for president. Lamb’s campaign focused on preserving Medicare and Social Security, and warning that Republican policies would put them at risk. The United Mine Workers of America, which had sat out the 2016 election, endorsed Lamb when the Democrat promised to support legislation that would fully fund their pensions.
That was one of several issues where Saccone never tried to meet or outflank Lamb. On Monday, as he campaigned at Canonsburg’s famous Sarris Candies with Trump Jr., Saccone dodged a question about the bill on miners’ pensions and accused a reporter who asked about it of talking to “liberals” instead of real miners.
It was not the only time that the Republican snapped at Democrats. At the second and final debate with Lamb, Saccone said his opponent didn’t “even know the difference between North and South Korea.” At his final rally, on Monday, Saccone said that “the other side” was gripped by a “hatred for our country” and a “hatred for God.”
But Saccone’s retail and TV ad campaigning was resoundingly positive, clashing with the negative ads that Republicans threw across the airwaves. Four groups spent more than $1 million: the National Republican Congressional Committee ($3.5 million), the Congressional Leadership Fund ($3.4 million), the Republican National Committee ($1.3 million) and America First Action ($1.1 million).
Most of their ads were negative, portraying Lamb as a “puppet” of Pelosi, a foe of middle-class tax cuts, and eventually, as a prosecutor who had let drug dealers get light sentences.
Lamb blunted the impact of those attacks, most notably by saying in early January that he would not support Pelosi for speaker. His highest-profile surrogate, former vice president Joe Biden, has enjoyed high approval ratings from all voters since passing on a 2016 presidential bid.
Viebeck and Sullivan reported from Washington. Scott Farwell and Kellie Gormly contributed from Pennsylvania.