Clarification: An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect country where Rick Saccone did counterterrorism work. He performed that work in South Korea and Iraq, and he served in North Korea in a diplomatic role.
WASHINGTON — For the past 15 years, Republican Tim Murphy has easily won Pennsylvania’s 18th district — he didn’t even have a Democratic opponent in two of his eight elections.
But after Murphy’s resignation this fall, Republicans are scrambling to save this mostly working-class district outside of Pittsburgh from turning blue in Tuesday's special election — pouring millions of dollars into the race and dispatching President Trump to rev up the GOP base.
Strategists in both parties see this contest as a potential bellwether for the November elections. Democrats are hoping to seize on enthusiasm among their key constituencies to win control of the House, while Republicans are trying to hold onto power despite a possible Trump backlash. Both sides say the Pennsylvania race will offer some hints about November, although strategists also concede it won't provide a certain prediction of what's to come.
The Pennsylvania district has more registered Democrats than Republicans, but for years its residents have elected GOP candidates. Trump won here by 20 percentage points in 2016. But the special election to replace Murphy is now competitive — polls show Democrat Conor Lamb within striking distance of Republican Rick Saccone.
The seat opened up after Murphy resigned in October amid reports that he urged a woman with whom he had been having an extramarital affair to get an abortion. Murphy had been strongly against abortion during his time in Congress.
In Lamb, Democrats seem to have a dream candidate. He's is a 33-year-old former federal prosecutor and ex-Marine. He’s pro-gun and personally opposed to abortion, although he has said he wouldn’t vote to restrict access.
Lamb has mostly shied away from national Democrats, saying the party needs new leadership and distancing himself from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has spent $300,000 on his behalf, but Lamb has tried his best to avoid being tied to his party's national brand.
Meanwhile, Saccone, 60, is a conservative state representative who previously worked in counterterrorism in South Korea and Iraq. He has tried to align himself with the president. Trump plans to be in southwestern Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally of his own, and he's likely to promote Saccone’s candidacy then.
“There is a path for a Democrat to win this district, but that Democrat was never going to be Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Conor Lamb is the type of Democrat who could conceivably win that seat,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which handicaps and analyzes House races. Cook Political Report recently moved the race to "toss-up" from "lean Republican."
Wasserman said Lamb’s centrist policy positions could make him appealing to voters in the district. In addition, Lamb is “relentlessly on script” and enjoys the benefit on not having a voting record for his opponent to attack. On Tuesday, former vice president Joe Biden, who is popular with white working-class voters, campaigned for Lamb.
Lamb is also benefiting from record-high enthusiasm among Democrats and record-low approval ratings for Trump. Trump’s favorable ratings are higher in this district than others, but 47% of voters disapprove of the job he's doing, according to a Monmouth University poll.
Lamb has raised almost $4 million, compared to less than $1 million raised by Saccone. Outside Republican groups have come to Saccone’s aid, spending millions of dollars in an attempt to keep the seat from flipping.
Republicans concede that Lamb is an appealing candidate with a stellar résumé and that Saccone has had a tough time matching him.
“When the two candidates were picked … I watched 30 seconds of video of Conor Lamb and I watched 30 seconds of video of Rick Saccone, and I concluded this was going to be a challenging race,” Corry Bliss, the executive director of Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Bliss said the organization has spent $3 million on advertisements and has 50 full-time door-knockers.
Other GOP groups are also spending heavily. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP political arm, has spent more than $3 million to try and keep Saccone afloat. In all, GOP party committees and outside groups have spent more than $9 million on Saccone’s behalf, compared to about $1.2 million for Lamb.
Bliss said the race should be a warning to Republicans ahead of 2018, with Democratic voters fired up and ready for battle.
“We need candidates that will work hard, raise money and run good campaigns,” he said.
But Bliss also cautioned against reading too much into the special election results. He noted that Lamb did not face a Democratic primary, which often forces candidates to move to the left.
“Lamb is running as a Republican-lite candidate, and that makes him competitive in PA-18’s special election, but he would have zero chance of winning any contested Democratic primary,” Bliss argued.
J.D. Angle, a Texas-based Democratic strategist, disagrees. Angle has worked on successful campaigns in red states and districts across the country and said that Lamb’s strategy can be replicated elsewhere. Lamb is not running as a partisan Democrat, focusing instead on pocketbook issues that will appeal to middle-class families, Angle said.
"Voters are looking for somebody they can trust to go make decisions,” Angle said. “Lamb has not really made this about Washington politicians, but about the issues that are important to all voters."
No matter who wins on Tuesday — and what it could predict for the 2018 midterms — the winner in this Pennsylvania seat will face a different challenge in November: a new congressional map.
The state's Supreme Court recently tossed out Pennsylvania's electoral map as an unconstitutional gerrymander. The newly redrawn map would put more than a half-dozen House seats in play for Democrats.
By the time the November 2018 midterms roll around, neither Lamb or Saccone will live in the new 18th district. Lamb is expected to run in the 17th district, which under the new map is more favorable for Democrats. Saccone could end up running in the newly drawn 14th district. Much of the current 18th district will become the 14th, which would be even more Republican-friendly, according to the Cook Political Report.