Cook Report: PA-18 Special Election Moves from Lean Republican to Toss Up

By Dave Wasserman

It’s not normal for Republicans to be worried about losing a seat President Trump carried by 20 points. But with two weeks to go before the March 13 special election, Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone is locked in an extremely close contest against Democratic prosecutor/Marine veteran Conor Lamb, who has significantly outspent him. We’re moving the race from Lean Republican to Toss Up.

There’s no doubt part of the problem for the GOP in PA-18 is the national political climate. During January, following the passage of the tax cut bill, Republicans had cut Democrats’ lead in generic congressional ballot polls in half. But during February, Democrats’ lead has returned to close to double digits, a turnaround that was in progress before the Parkland school shootings. 

However, the climate alone wouldn’t be enough to push a district as Republican as the 18th CD into the Toss Up column. After all, Trump is still a net asset to the GOP here, and Nancy Pelosi is unpopular. What’s made the race so close, many Republicans admit, is that Lamb has simply proven to be a stronger candidate than Saccone.

As a 33-year-old veteran from a prominent Irish-Catholic Pittsburgh political family, Lamb is well-positioned to tap into Western Pennsylvania’s ancestral Democratic roots (Democrats still enjoy a slight voter registration edge in the 18th). He emphasizes protecting Social Security and Medicare from cuts, says he won’t support Pelosi and talks about strengthening background checks without calling for new gun laws.

Saccone, a 60-year-old mustachioed former Air Force counter-intelligence officer, hasn’t made any major blunders. But he hasn’t raised the resources to tell voters his life story as effectively as Lamb, and after seven years in Harrisburg, he can’t credibly run as a political outsider. Moreover, Saccone’s votes for right-to-work legislation have angered unions, still an important constituency in this part of the state. 

Former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who won eight elections here before resigning in October upon the disclosure of an extra-marital affair, had solid working relationships with labor groups and routinely won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. In this race, the state AFL-CIO chapter has snubbed the Republican and endorsed Lamb. 

For a first-time candidate, Lamb has also been relentlessly on script. One GOP-aligned outside group sent a video tracker to the district for several weeks to trail Lamb, but complained they couldn’t glean any useful material. One infamous Congressional Leadership Fund ad cast Lamb as a “sheep” in Pelosi’s flock, but without a voting record or video clips to tie Lamb to the leader, the attack falls flat. 

Perhaps because of his more moderate views on fracking, abortion and guns, Lamb hasn’t become the online fundraising sensation in progressive circles that Jon Ossoff was. But he’s still outraised Saccone by almost three to one ($560,000 to $214,000 in 2017), allowing him to define the race on his terms on the Pittsburgh airwaves.

Lamb’s overwhelming television advantage has forced the NRCC ($2.2 million spent) and Speaker Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund ($2.7 million) to bail out Saccone. Hoping to capitalize on Trump’s relative popularity here, their ads have gone all-in on selling a “$2,900 middle-class tax cut.” It’s a risk: if voters here don’t believe they’re benefiting from the tax cut bill, where will they?

In a sign Saccone has failed to define himself, the NRCC has taken the rare step of going up with positive ads for its candidate. One ad bills Saccone as a “built American tough” Iraq veteran who captured and interrogated terrorists in Iraq. In recent days, the NRCC has switched to attacking Lamb over plea deals he arranged as an assistant federal prosecutor, but it feels like searching for something that sticks.

The DCCC has taken a page from Sen. Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama and has taken a hands-off approach, spending only around $300,000 and going dark on television for most of the final stretch. It’s probably a shrewd decision in light of Lamb’s cash advantage and voters’ skepticism towards the national Democratic brand. 

There’s also major angst among Republicans that the enthusiasm gap that’s shown up in other special elections will show up here. Despite its blue-collar reputation, the 18th CD has the highest rate of college graduates of any seat in Western Pennsylvania thanks to its Allegheny County suburbs (Lamb’s base). If those voters turn out at a much higher rate than Trump-oriented Westmoreland County’s, Lamb would probably prevail. 

For over a month, private polls on both sides have shown Saccone leading in the low-to-mid single digits, often within the margin of error. Today, the candidates are better-known, but Lamb hasn’t let Republicans nationalize the race and Saccone still hasn’t pulled away. The contest is exceedingly close, and Republican operatives are preparing to spin a loss as the result of an unfavorable candidate contrast.

Republicans’ special election woes may not end in Pennsylvania. In the event Arizona GOP state Sen. Steve Montenegro wins tonight’s primary for resigned Rep. Trent Franks’s seat, Republicans could have another migraine in yet another a district where Trump won by 20 points but an incumbent resigned following a sex scandal.

Montenegro, a married church minister, was caught in a sexting scandal involving a junior legislative staffer that was only brought to light after three-quarters of GOP primary ballots had already been cast by mail. If he wins the nomination tonight, Democratic emergency room physician Hiral Tipirneni could be a factor in the April 24 special election. If not, Republicans would breathe a much-needed sigh of relief.