Democrats claim win in too-close-to-call Pennsylvania election

Congressional vote in Republican heartland is seen as referendum on Trump

Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, celebrates with his supporters at his election night party. Photograph: Gene J Puskar/AP Photo

Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, celebrates with his supporters at his election night party. Photograph: Gene J Puskar/AP Photo

 

A Democratic challenger claimed victory on Wednesday in a congressional election in a Pennsylvania district won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race despite the official result being too close to call.

Conor Lamb appeared before his supporters to say: “It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it.”

In the early hours of Wednesday the 33-year-old former marine and federal prosecutor was holding on to a slim lead in the special election, seen as a bellwether of the national political mood.

With all precincts reporting, Mr Lamb led Rick Saccone, his Republican opponent, 49.8 per cent to 49.6 per cent – or by a little over 600 votes out of about 225,000 cast on Tuesday. Absentee and provisional ballots were still being tabulated and a recount appeared likely.

Mr Saccone refused to concede. “We are going to keep fighting,” he told followers shortly before midnight.

Mr Lamb campaigned as a centrist, and his performance was taken as a sign that the Democrats could regain the support of white working-class voters who backed Mr Trump in 2016 and win control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections.

So high were the stakes in the race that Mr Trump, who carried the 18th congressional district by 20 percentage points against Hillary Clinton, travelled to the area on Saturday to campaign for Mr Saccone (60).

In the final days of the campaign, Mr Trump rolled out a 25 per cent tariff on foreign steel and 10 per cent on imported aluminium – a move designed to appeal to voters in the district in southwestern Pennsylvania’s steel country.

“A lot of steel mills are now opening up because of what I did,” Mr Trump told a rally with Mr Saccone in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. “Steel is back and aluminium is back.”

Yet the tariffs may have had less of an effect on the race than the president might have hoped. Like Mr Saccone, Mr Lamb backed the tariffs, while avoiding positions that might upset gun rights advocates deep in the heart of Trump country.

Youth enthusiasm

Mr Lamb was careful to avoid criticising the president, emphasising local issues in what could become a model for other Democrats who hope to win back districts that Mr Trump carried. With deep roots in the district, Mr Lamb was, by all accounts, a good candidate, and generated noticeable enthusiasm, particularly from young voters.

The seat had been held for 15 years by a pro-life Republican who resigned after it emerged that he had impregnated a woman, who was not his wife, and encouraged her to get an abortion.

During the campaign, Mr Lamb raised more than $3.9 million (€3.15 million), according to Federal Election Commission filings, compared with $600,000 raised by Mr Saccone. That gap prompted outside Republican groups to pile into the race, spending more than $10.5 million to boost Mr Saccone’s coffers. By contrast, Mr Lamb received just $2.6 million from outside groups.

Even the flood of extra funding was not enough to produce a big win for Mr Saccone, a Republican who has served in Pennsylvania’s state legislature and once boasted he was “Trump before Trump was Trump”.

Attack ads

A report by Politico on Tuesday found that Republicans had struggled with their message in the race. In the early days, ads for Mr Saccone focused on Republicans’ tax cuts. Later, Republicans aired ads attacking Mr Lamb, or focusing on immigration.

Polls leading into the weekend had shown a tight race, however, and by Tuesday many Republicans worried that a loss could be looming.

Early in the day, Mr Trump fired off a brief tweet in support of Mr Saccone. “The Economy is raging, at an all-time high, and is set to get even better. Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!”

Yet a few minutes later, it was quickly overshadowed by another tweet from Mr Trump announcing he was ousting Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and replacing him with Mike Pompeo, ensuring that the vote in Pennsylvania would be overshadowed.

Should Mr Lamb prevail, he will hold the seat only through to the end of the year. Pennsylvania’s supreme court has ordered the state to redraw its district map because of evidence of gerrymandering. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018