For the better part of a century, southwestern Pennsylvania was as Democratic an area of the country as they came. Whenever a Democrat won a statewide or presidential race in the Keystone State, everything from Pittsburgh to Johnstown was coated blue. But aside from Pittsburgh, this region swung hard to the GOP in the 1990s. A look at the maps for the last three presidential elections shows a sea of red in Pennsylvania’s southwestern corner, except for a small dot of blue around Pittsburgh.
However, it looks like this area may be nudging back to its roots. A new poll ahead of a special election in a congressional district south of Pittsburgh suggests that a Democrat may be about to seize a seat that, more than anywhere else, mirrors southwestern Pennsylvania’s dramatic swing from blue to red.
Tim Murphy represented Pennsylvania’s 18th District for eight terms before being forced to resign in October. He’d already planned to forgo reelection in 2018 after being caught telling his mistress to get an abortion while portraying himself as one of the most rabidly anti-abortion members of the House. But he was forced to leave a year early amid reports from former staffers that working for him was a nightmare.
It initially looked like the race for this open seat all but ended when the Republicans nominated state representative Rick Saccone for the special election. After all, Murphy won this seat easily when the state legislature essentially redrew it for him in 2003, and his lowest margin over the years was 58 percent. George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump all won this district going away.
But the Democrats scrambled matters by nominating Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb, scion of a prominent political family in southwestern Pennsylvania. His profile is very similar to those of Democrats who won in this area for years. Soon after winning the nomination, he all but locked up the support of the mineworkers and steelworkers unions–a critical factor in what is still a thoroughly unionized area.
The first sign of trouble came in February, when a Monomouth University poll showed the race as essentially a dead heat. Saccone led 49-46 in a model assuming “Democratic surge”-level turnout similar to those posted in special elections in 2017, 48-44 in turnout modeling a presidential election year, and 50-45 in a low-turnout election. All of these leads were within the 5.1 percent margin of error.
Those numbers should have sent eyebrows into hairlines in the Saccone camp. After all, this was a district Trump carried by a punishing 58-38 margin. And as mentioned earlier, Murphy never had to break a sweat here, even though on paper there are 70,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. In other words–even with Lamb’s pedigree, this race should not have even been on the radar screen.
But if they weren’t nervous then, they definitely should have been nervous when Monomouth released a new poll on Monday morning. It showed Lamb leading just outside the margin of error in all three models. He leads 51-45 in a “Democratic surge” scenario, 49-47 in a low-turnout model, and 51-44 in a presidential-year model.
There’s virtually no good news for Saccone in the internals. Trump’s approval rating in this district is a flat-footed 49-49 tie. Voters are also evenly split on whether they want the Democrats or the Republicans to control Congress–a 42-42 tie.
These numbers are critical. Saccone has billed himself as being “Trump before Trump was Trump,” while painting Lamb as a potential rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi. State Republican Party chairman Val DiGiorgio kept up this latter line on Fox News’ “Outnumbered” on Monday. Watch here.
DiGiorgio told host Harris Faulkner that Lamb is getting a lot of money via ActBlue, mainly from “liberals on the coast” who back Pelosi.
According to Monomouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray, this latest poll shows that Lamb “seems to have connected” with voters who still have Democratic roots even as they’ve voted Republican up and down the ballot in recent years. In a colossal understatement, Murray says that a Lamb victory would mark “an extraordinary swing” from 2016.
The fundraising numbers seem to prove that Lamb has struck a chord in this district. Lamb hasn’t just outraised Saccone, he’s boatracing him by a nearly five-to-one margin. From January 1 through February 21, Lamb raised a whopping $3.3 million to Saccone’s $703,000. Not only have Republican outside groups been forced to come to Saccone’s rescue, but Trump himself campaigned for Saccone on Saturday–where he infamously called NBC’s Chuck Todd “a sleeping son of a bitch.”
By way of comparison, none of Murphy’s opponents raised more than $659,000. It appears that Republican concerns about Saccone’s fundraising have been borne out several times over. He initially planned to challenge Bob Casey in the Senate, but only raised $70,000 before jumping to the House race. Indeed, the National Republican Congressional Committee actually had to give Saccone a crash course in Campaign Fundraising 101.
About the only good news Saccone got on Monday was an endorsement from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. However, the Post-Gazette’s rationale was rather bizarre. It suggested that a Lamb victory could be a prelude to impeachment–a scenario that the Post-Gazette apparently sees as “bad for the country” and “a distraction.”
It looks like Trump may already be girding himself for a potential loss. Publicly, he cheered the Post-Gazette’s endorsement.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette just endorsed Rick Saccone for Congress. He will be much better for steel and business. Very strong on experience and what our Country needs. Lamb will always vote for Pelosi and Dems….Will raise taxes, weak on Crime and Border.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2018
But according to Axios, at least four people close to Trump recall him describing Saccone as “a terrible, ‘weak’ candidate.” That might explain why he spent most of Saturday’s rally patting himself on the back.
It says a lot that the Republicans even have to worry about this seat. Anything less than a double-digit victory for Saccone will be nothing short of an embarrassment for the GOP. If Lamb wins, however, we could be seeing the beginnings of a Democratic tsunami this fall–one that could crash ashore in southwestern Pennsylvania.
But Lamb’s still going to need a lot of help for the final push. Let’s help him finish this–click here to donate.
(featured image courtesy Lamb’s Facebook)