WASHINGTON — Democrats emerged Wednesday from a stunning victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District more confident that they have a winning strategy to take back the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.
Democrat Conor Lamb claimed a win over Republican Rick Saccone in the race to replace Tim Murphy, who resigned in scandal in October.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republican campaign arm, said the Saccone campaign will not concede until provisional ballots are counted later this week.
Regardless of the final vote count, the results aren’t good for Republicans. President Donald J. Trump won the reliably red district in southwestern Pennsylvania by 20 points in 2016.
On the surface, the impact of the race is short term. Lamb will only serve in this seat until the general election in November. The redraw of the Pennsylvania congressional map will mean Lamb and Saccone could both be members of Congress in different districts in a matter of months.
But in a midterm election year when Democrats are eyeing a takeback of the House, the special election offers insights into voter behaviors, party messaging and the money game that may be applied to races nationwide.
Lamb is being applauded by both sides for a well-managed campaign that focused on the right issues: protecting Social Security and Medicare, supporting unions, affordable health care, addressing the opioid epidemic and jobs.
U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., is leading a coalition of veterans running for office. He endorsed and campaigned for Lamb.
“The political establishment, on both sides, told Conor he couldn’t win,” Moulton said in a statement Wednesday. “But by continuing to invest in the right candidates, challenging the status quo, and talking about a forward-looking message for the country, we can take back the House and hold President Trump accountable to the American people."
Mike Mikus is a veteran Democratic operative who grew up and lives in the district.
He told Channel 11 News he knew from the start this would be a competitive race but that the results show “Democratic shifts in communities all across the district.”
“The amazing thing about the race is that it wasn’t just one subgroup that moved in Lamb’s direction,” said Mikus. “It was highly educated suburbs, blue-collar union workers, women -- across the board the map moved hard in Lamb’s direction.”
If this was a laboratory test for Democrats in 2018, the results should be welcome news for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who is running for re-election against Republican Rep. Lou Barletta.
The race also proved to be a confidence boost for former Vice President Joe Biden, who may be mulling his own campaign in 2020.
Biden, who held a rally for Lamb the week before Election Day, was the most high-profile Democrat to campaign for Lamb.
Meanwhile, Trump made two visits to the district for Saccone. Republicans on Capitol Hill are praising the president for making the race as close as it was, but for those who think a Trump-Biden matchup is possible, Biden took round one.
Republicans have a different take on the implications of the race.
A top GOP operative whose group spent millions on the 18th district race says the loss can be attributed to a bad candidate who couldn’t raise money.
The source said Tuesday before the results came in that Saccone was a joke and an embarrassing candidate.
That same operative said in December that the race was “an A candidate versus an F candidate and our guy isn’t the A.”
Other Republicans are privately looking at this race with concern, given that there are more than a dozen seats being contested in November that Trump won by fewer points than he did in Pennsylvania 18.
House Speaker Paul Ryan made a veiled criticism at Saccone’s lackluster fundraising in a press conference Wednesday, but noted Lamb didn’t have to run in a primary, which could have pushed him to the left ideologically. Saccone did not compete in a primary either.
“Both of these candidates ran as conservatives, ran as pro-gun, pro-life, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservatives. And I think that's the takeaway we see here," said Ryan.
Democrats are pushing back on the idea that Lamb ran as a Republican.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Meredith Kelly tweeted Wednesday morning that Lamb “ran his campaign on traditional Dem issues: pro-union, pro-jobs, pro-affordable healthcare, (and) protect Medicare/Social Security.”
“If that’s what they believe, they’re in for a terrible night in November,” said Mikus about Republicans’ claims for the reasons behind Saccone’s loss.
Outside Republican groups like the Ryan-backed Super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund spent millions on the race. A chunk of that money was spent on ads targeting Lamb for opposing Republicans’ tax cut plan.
“There is no doubt 2018 is going to be a challenging environment for Republicans; that is not new news," said Courtney Alexander, CLF spokeswoman. "But because of that, strong campaigns and candidates matter now more than ever.”
A national Republican involved in the race said that the results do not change the strategy for 2018.
The source told Channel 11 News it was the pressure from Republican ads that forced Lamb to distance himself from Pelosi, and it is proof that attacks on the minority leader are still effective.
No matter who won this special election, there’s no rest for either candidate. Both are eyeing runs in different districts in November. For now, Saccone will most likely run unopposed in the new 14th District. Lamb is most likely to run in the new 17th District against incumbent Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus, who currently represents the 12th District.
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