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Apparent Democratic Win in Pennsylvania Warning Sign for Republicans


Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate inthe March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District is seen with supporters in Canonsburg, Pensylvania, March 14, 2018.

In a race with national implications, Democrat Conor Lamb declared victory in a very close special congressional election held Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

Officially, the race has not been called for Lamb, who holds a lead of 627 votes over Republican candidate Rick Saccone, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump. It’s possible Saccone and his supporters may request a recount, given the close vote.

Even though Lamb’s apparent victory is narrow, the Pennsylvania result could broaden implications for Republicans looking to defend their congressional majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate in the November midterm elections.

A centrist pitch

Lamb ran surprisingly strong in a district that Trump carried by nearly 20 points, campaigning as a moderate Democrat.

“We fought to find common ground, and we found it, almost everywhere. Democrats, Republicans, independents — each of us, Americans,” Lamb told supporters early Wednesday.

Saccone was not ready to concede the race. “We are going to fight all the way to the end. You know I never give up.”

Trump stokes Democrats

The Pennsylvania race follows Democratic victories late last year in Virginia and Alabama, fueled in large part by what some analysts see as an anti-Trump theme that continues to build.

Supporters of U.S. Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb react to results coming in during Lamb's election night rally in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District special election against Republican candidate Rick Saccone in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, March 13, 2018.
Supporters of U.S. Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb react to results coming in during Lamb's election night rally in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District special election against Republican candidate Rick Saccone in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, March 13, 2018.

“The opposition to Donald Trump is as intense as I have seen since the last year of [Richard] Nixon’s presidency," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato via Skype. “It is so intense, it is so hot, that it could result in a much bigger turnover than we think in the midterm elections to the Democrats and away from the Republicans.”

Saccone cast himself as the president’s “wingman,” and Trump campaigned on his behalf at a rally last Saturday when Trump urged Republicans to get out and vote.

“We want to keep the agenda, the make America great, going. You have got to get him in. This is a very important race,” Trump said.

Republicans on alert

Democrats were thrilled with the result, while some Republicans saw the race as a “wake-up” call for what could be a devastating midterm in November.

“We need to execute, we need to get our message, and we need to make sure that our candidates are not massively outraised and outspent on TV, as was the case between these two candidates,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in support of Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone during a Make America Great Again rally in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, March 10, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in support of Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone during a Make America Great Again rally in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, March 10, 2018.

​North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer said he did not see the need to “be alarmed” about the result, but acknowledged there is reason for concern.

“I think for Republicans, the message has to be, run on what we’ve done and what we are doing, because we have a good record.”

Battling history

Midterm elections historically are unkind to sitting presidents, and Trump is likely no exception, according to Michael Barone of the American Enterprise Institute, a research group.

“The party of the president is generally going to be held responsible for what the president and the administration have done, particularly when, as now, Republicans have a majority in both houses (of Congress). So, there is a vulnerability there.”

The president’s party historically averages about a 30-seat loss in the House in a midterm election.

Sabato said a Democratic victory in the so-called “Trump country” of western Pennsylvania, an area he won by nearly 20 points in 2016, is a major sign of danger for Republicans.

Republican Rick Saccone, center, is surrounded by cameras and reporters as he heads to the polling place to cast his ballot in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, March 13, 2018.
Republican Rick Saccone, center, is surrounded by cameras and reporters as he heads to the polling place to cast his ballot in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, March 13, 2018.

“The fact that a Democrat managed to win in that district suggests that Republicans in easily 100 districts around the country who are incumbents now have to worry, because they are representing places that went for Trump by much less.”

Democrats need a gain of 24 House seats and two Senate seats to reclaim congressional majorities. And complicating Republican efforts to hold their majorities is the president’s historically low public approval rating, which remains just above 40 percent, and the uncertainty of the ongoing Russia probe.

Sabato, however, also notes that the intensity of Trump’s core supporters remains high, which could help Republicans temper Democratic gains in November. Sabato estimates that core Trump supporters make up about 35 percent of the electorate, at most.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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