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How a Democratic surge turned Pennsylvania’s special election into a tight race

WEST END, Pa. — The Allegheny County Democratic Party’s headquarters in West End, just outside Pittsburgh, is adorned with mementos of past visits by President Obama, and framed photographs of Democratic icons like Franklin Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. It’s an office that appears focused on a bygone era of Democratic leadership.

That’s until the county chairwoman, Nancy Mills, starts talking about Conor Lamb, the Democrat on the ballot in Tuesday’s special election for former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy’s seat, which includes parts of Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania.

The number of volunteers who turned out for Lamb outnumbered both Obama campaigns, the Clinton campaign, and recent gubernatorial and congressional races, Mills said in an interview at her office on the eve of the election.

“I have never seen anything quite like this,” Mills said.

A surge of Democratic support has turned this reliable Republican seat into a surprisingly competitive race between Lamb, an attorney and former Marine, and Rick Saccone, a conservative state legislator.

President Donald Trump won the district by 19 points in 2016, and returned there over the weekend to campaign for Saccone. Trump’s focus on the race has helped turn it into a referendum on his policies and an early test of how Democrats and Republicans will approach the midterm elections this fall.

But while the race has been thrust into the national spotlight, in interviews in recent days voters and party activists on both sides said they weren’t focused on the debates taking place in Congress over gun control, taxes and immigration.

An attendee signs in to a campaign event held for Congressional candidate Conor Lamb in Carnegie, Pennsylvania,on February 16. Photo by REUTERS/Maranie Staab

Beth Newman, a Lamb campaign volunteer in conservative Westmoreland County, said Lamb was popular in right-leaning parts of the district because he had distanced himself from the partisan gridlock in Washington.

“He’s just interested in solving problems and not being a Democrat or Republican,” Newman said.

Of course, Lamb is a Democrat. But he has managed to put together a diverse coalition of supporters from the district’s unions and more progressive suburbs outside of Pittsburgh — largely by running as a centrist Democrat with moderate views on issues like abortion and gun control.

Democrats are hoping his campaign could provide a blueprint for other candidates in areas long-forgotten by the national party.

In another year, the Republican nominee would be widely considered a shoo-in to succeed Murphy, who resigned last year after news broke that he reportedly asked a woman with whom he had an affair to get an abortion. Murphy represented the district from 2003 to 2017.

But the polls narrowed in the final days of the race. A poll released Monday by Monmouth University showed Lamb with a two-point lead over Saccone — and gave him a larger, six-point advantage if Democratic turnout was higher than the historical average for the district in midterm election years.

But Republicans said they weren’t nervous for Saccone, a four-term state senator with a long list of national security credentials and a staunch conservative agenda. Supporters said they were drawn to Saccone’s political persona more than his positions on any single issue. They also said they valued his independent streak, comparing it to Trump’s outsider approach to politics.

Saccone was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” said Herb Ohliger, who is backing Saccone. “He ran from the outside, as an outsider, not as a party person,” Ohliger said. Throughout his career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Saccone was always “able to do his own thing,” he added.

Still, Saccone’s campaign struggled to gain traction from the start. In part due to an inability to raise enough money on his own, Saccone has relied on outside groups to pour money into the race.

By the time polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, outside political groups on both sides will have spent an estimated $12 million combined in support of both candidates. The spending helped turn the election into a proxy battle over national issues, despite efforts by both candidates to cast it as a local race.

A good example is the debate over gun control, which was reignited after the mass shooting in Florida last month and made its way to the House race in Pennsylvania.

In the final days of the race, a liberal-leaning group sent out a political mailer stating that Saccone supported ending background checks. The Saccone campaign cried foul, saying the stunt misrepresented his views.

“Rick has never said he wants to end background checks,” a campaign spokesperson said in a statement to NewsHour over the weekend.

Saccone maintains an A+ rating from the NRA and has sponsored several bills aimed at bolstering gun rights, including a 2016 bill to overturn Chuck E. Cheese’s policy of refusing service to customers with firearms.

Lamb has steered clear of taking controversial positions on gun control. He has opposed a ban on assault weapons and ran a television advertisement in which he shot a rifle as a voiceover declared that he “loves to shoot.”

On paper, Lamb’s pro-gun rights stance would seem to deter some progressives from throwing their full weight behind him. But supporters like Mykie Reidy said they cared more about electing a Democrat than taking an ideological stand on specific issues.

Reidy transformed her home in Mt. Lebanon, a liberal Pittsburgh suburb in the district, into a hub for Lamb volunteers knocking on doors and calling potential voters in the weeks leading up to the election. A 2016 Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention and self-described progressive, Reidy admitted that her politics fall to the left of Lamb’s.

“Would I be happy if they banned automatic weapons? Sure,” Reidy said.

Another Lamb supporter in Mt. Lebanon, Elaine Giarrusso, said she was willing to overlook Lamb’s centrist view on guns. “We had no qualms about supporting him as a candidate,” Giarrusso added.

A victory by Lamb would give Democrats added momentum ahead of the midterms this fall. The party closed out 2017 with high-profile wins in elections in Virginia and Alabama. Since the 2016 election, turnout among Democrats has increased, and the party is competing in districts where Republicans have not faced strong challengers in several cycles.

“Who wins or loses is important,” Marc Meredith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “But also we’re looking at what the margin looks like.”

Comparing Tuesday’s results to the elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and Alabama last year will be much more indicative of the electorate’s mood heading into the midterms, he said.

Despite his late surge in the polls, the district’s voting history is still stacked against Lamb.

The district has voted for the GOP presidential nominee in every election since 2000, and Murphy ran unopposed in 2012 and 2014. Trump won three of the four counties in the district in 2016 as part of his sweep of the working class, blue-collar regions of western Pennsylvania that used to be Democratic strongholds.

In 2016, “Trump really motivated people to come out,” said Kerry Jobe, the vice-chairman of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee.

Pennsylvania has closed primaries, meaning that voters can only vote in their party’s primary election, and independents must register as Republicans or Democrats to participate.
Trump’s popularity pushed many independents to register as Republicans in 2016 so they could cast their ballot for him, Jobe said. The number of registered Republicans in Westmoreland County increased in the last election cycle, and Jobe said he was confident those same voters would come out and support Saccone on Tuesday.

“If you polled these folks here in Westmoreland specifically who supported Trump, and why they supported Trump, their checklist is going to be identical to Rick Saccone’s campaign,” Jobe said.

Mills, the Democratic leader in Allegheny County, said the outcome would provide clues about how the midterms might play out this fall. “This is a bellwether and this will be the beginning of what we’re going to see across” country, Mills said. “And I believe we’re going to win the election.”

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