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Democrat's thin lead in Pennsylvania congressional election points to larger problems for Republicans

Democrat's thin lead in Pennsylvania congressional election points to larger problems for Republicans
Conor Lamb, Democratic House candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th District, and his grandmother Barbara Lamb exit the polling station in Tuesday's closely watched election. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The closely watched special congressional election in western Pennsylvania was at a virtual tie with almost all the votes counted Tuesday night — a result that suggests deep trouble for Republicans in this fall's midterm election.

As the final ballots were tallied in a district that President Trump carried by a large margin in 2016, the tightness of the contest, regardless of the final winner, provided further indications that Republican campaign themes are proving insufficient to offset highly motivated Democratic voters.

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The Republican establishment and Trump himself poured substantial resources and energy into the race, seeking to avoid the embarrassment of losing a district in which Democrats haven't been competitive for years.

But despite being heavily outspent, and with limited help from the national party, the Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, a former Marine and political neophyte, was narrowly leading his opponent, state lawmaker Rick Saccone. With all but some absentee and provisional ballots counted, Lamb led by about 600 votes, or 0.2%.

"It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it. You did it," the 33-year-old candidate told cheering supporters.

Republicans, however, had not conceded the race. "We are still fighting the fight. It's not over yet," Saccone told his backers.

A final count of the remaining ballots may not be complete until at least the end of the week, officials said, and given the tight margin, the losing campaign could request a recount.

But even with the outcome unresolved, the results seem likely to energize Democrats and move activists in the party to rethink where they can compete.

Democratic strategists generally believe the party's best chances to unseat Republicans this year are in suburban districts with large numbers of college-educated, white-collar voters who may have been turned off by Trump.

But in Lamb, Democrats found a candidate who connected in a heavily blue-collar district deeply skeptical of the national Democratic Party. He staunchly backed the rights of gun owners, personally opposes abortion, and wants Nancy Pelosi out as House Democratic leader.

The Pennsylvania election follows a pattern that has been evident for the last year: Even in elections that the president's party has won, the trends have been troubling for Republicans. Democratic candidates have made surprisingly strong showings in some of the deepest-red territory in the country.

In the immediate term, the outcome in the Pennsylvania race is largely symbolic. It will not change the balance of power in Congress, and the winner's term will be short, lasting just through the end of the year.

Moreover, the district, Pennsylvania's 18th, is slated to be erased before the fall election. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ordered the redrawing of the state's political boundaries, finding they were improperly designed to favor Republicans. Lamb and Saccone would each have to compete in a new district in November.

Yet symbolic races can have concrete impacts: Republican operatives have feared that a loss in Pennsylvania would further propel a wave of retirements by GOP congressional incumbents, placing up for grabs even more seats and increasing the potential for Democrats to win control of one or both chambers of Congress.

In a district filled with former steel and coal workers whose employment prospects and standard of living have diminished with globalization, the race predictably became a referendum on Trump's policies.

Throughout the campaign, Saccone and his allies emphasized the tax cuts the president championed. They labored to paint Lamb as a loyalist to Pelosi (D-San Francisco), even after Lamb said publicly that he would not support keeping her in the leadership job. Trump's announcement that he would impose tariffs on imported steel seemed timed to propel Saccone forward.

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But Saccone continued to sputter. GOP operatives complained privately that he was a lackluster candidate. Defeat, if it happened, would be more a reflection of his energy deficit and disconnect with voters than any broader concerns Trump's base has with how the Republicans are running Washington, they argued in the days leading up to the election.

Unlike Trump, Saccone showed little affinity for the rank-and-file union workers who make up a big share of the district's electorate. He is a strident "right to work" proponent who has antagonized the same organized labor groups that had endorsed the Republican who vacated the House seat in October, Tim Murphy.

Scandal forced Murphy to make an abrupt exit after texts surfaced showing the antiabortion crusader had encouraged a staffer with whom he was having an affair to seek an abortion.

Abortion then went on to play big in the race to succeed him. Republicans tried to paint Lamb as an abortion rights zealot, but it proved a struggle. Lamb's position on abortion and most other social issues, including guns, is not far to the left of Saccone's.

As Saccone relied on national Republican groups to bail out his campaign and funnel millions of dollars into attacking his opponent, Lamb carefully avoided affiliations with the national Democrats who remain unpopular in the district. Working-class favorite Joe Biden was warmly welcomed to stump for Lamb. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other urban liberals kept their distance.

Lamb was so wary of the party on so many issues that Trump joked while in Pennsylvania on Saturday that Lamb was pretending to be a Republican.

As the campaign unfolded, however, Democrats were not complaining. They have been desperate to notch victories — or even compete — in Rust Belt regions like Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, where dismayed former factory and mine workers had abandoned the party's candidates in large numbers.

Tuesday's results proved a Democrat could compete in such a district. Regardless of the final outcome, that message was as cheering for Democrats as it was ominous for Trump and his party.

Twitter: @evanhalper

UPDATES:

2:00 a.m. March 14: This article was updated with statements by both campaigns.

8 p.m.: This article was updated with prospects for absentee and provisional ballots.

7:30 p.m.: This article was updated with near-final returns.

6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with early returns showing Lamb in the lead.

This article was originally published at 2:59 a.m. March 13.

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