It’s very likely that you’ve never heard of Rick Saccone and Connor Lamb. If this was a different time with a different president, the special election in Pennsylvania would pass without a ripple of excitement. But this is the Age of Trump and these two men might decide the politics of the next few years. If you haven’t heard of these two men, you soon will. It is go-time in the Keystone State!
Saccone and Lamb are fighting for the congressional seat of Tim Murphy, a pro-life politician who prided himself on family values, who was involved in a sex scandal where he told a woman he was having an affair with to get an abortion. He resigned on October 5th and vacated his seat two weeks later. Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district is now up for grabs for either side to take. On March 13th, voters will go to the polls to decide who gets to sit in the seat of power.
For Republicans, this should be an easy victory. Despite leaning left, Pennsylvania is often considered to be Republican in many areas with the election occurring in a district that Trump carried by 20 points back in 2016. Democrats have a slight edge in voter numbers but Saccone is used to winning districts where Republicans are a minority. Murphy won unopposed for two terms and the new campaign has vastly outspent the Democrats.
On a national level, Republicans are hopeful that the Democratic Party will still be in a state of disarray as they try to figure out whether to embrace Bernie Sander’s radical message and #TheResistance or stick to the centrist, middle-of-the-road message. As inspiring as #TheResistance has been, it lacks a way to woo middle-of-the-road Republicans or offer anything more substantive than constantly hating on Trump. The Republican war chest is still full and they’ve made some progress that has conservatives nodding their heads.
It all sounds very simple for Republicans, but this is a different time and even now, there are jitters in the ranks of the GOP. Alabama weights heavy on their minds and Pennsylvania isn’t helping them stay calm.
For one thing, Rick Saccone might be a concern. His positions are not unusual for social conservatives and, of course, he’s no Roy Moore. He has a good chance on the ticket, but it’s hard to tell whether his pro-Trump attitude will help him or hinder him. He is a fervent pro-Trump supporter, describing himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump” with ties to the Christian right. He might not be as distasteful as Moore was, but the establishment is still wary of Trump’s cheerleaders, especially those like Saccone who practically is the man himself in a different form.
Facing him is a tough opponent who is already gaining ground against Saccone. Connor Lamb, an ex-Marine officer who became a successful federal prosecutor, comes from a family who has been in local politics for generations. His views are centrist with a few turns to the left, a solidly middle-of-the-road Democrat who, crucially, pledged that he would not support Nancy Pelosi in Congress.
This is important since, despite a large number of Democratic voters, Lamb is also hoping to win over anti-Trump conservatives and undecided independents within the state. A win here gives Democrats in swing states a map towards victory: stay in the center, don’t make strong stances, support new leadership. Many Democrats won’t like it as a national strategy, but the alternative method is not encouraging, as Jon Oseff proved.
If Rick Saccone wins, Republicans can breathe a little easier over the prospects of a potential ‘blue wave’ coming from them in the mid-terms. Trump will hail it as a great victory, proof that the voters haven’t abandoned him. A Republican victory will force Democrats to re-consider whether #ThResistance and go down the radical options is the better option. In doing so, Republicans might just manage to win over the centrists and independents later on. The mid-terms will still hurt but it would be easier to bear.
But if Connor Lamb pulls off the same stunt as Doug Jones and wins over a Republican stronghold that went heavily for Trump, then things will get even worse. For Democrats, it will offer even greater hope that the mid-terms will see them regain control of Congress. The winning formula will be proved right, at least for now. Victory will show that Trump is losing his base and may be in for trouble.
As for Republicans, a victory for Lamb will set the party into an even deeper spiral as panic begins to take hold. It will show that the agenda is toxic to voters and that Trump’s constant scandals are making an impact on the public. It will show that Alabama was not an outlier or a chance occurrence as many would like to believe: the ‘blue wave’ will be coming for them. Having spent millions of dollars backing a loser, many will question whether the money is being spent in the right place.
Saccone still has the advantage in some ways as the tariffs might drum up some last-minute support from steel unions, but some sources have the race as neck-and-neck. The fact that it is too close to call is bad enough for the GOP, but Lamb has a decent enough chance of staging an upset with some recent polls putting him narrowly ahead.
As the pendulum swings, all eyes are fixed on this one district as March 13th draws ever closer to see if Trump receives a cheerleader or a warning shot.