The race has been closely watched for hints of what may happen in the upcoming midterms, even though this time next year, the district won’t even exist. The stakes in PA-18 have little do with political power and everything to do with symbolism: Republicans had hoped that Saccone, who aligned himself with Trump, would emerge victorious as a testament to the president’s lingering popularity in the area. Democrats, meanwhile, saw the race as a chance to show how the party can win over Trump supporters come November.
Media coverage had framed the election as a referendum on President Trump, but, as I reported last week, Lamb did his best to avoid Trump-bashing. Instead, the former federal prosecutor and Marine chose to stress labor issues and the opioid crisis, and took a relatively conservative stance on guns. Saccone, a current state representative with a formidable resume as a counter-intelligence officer in the United States Air Force, pledged to reel in government spending, and aligned himself closely with the president, once describing himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.”
The two were vying to fill the congressional seat vacated by Tim Murphy, the district’s longtime Republican representative. Murphy resigned in October after it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair and asked his mistress to get an abortion. The 18th district, which encompasses parts of Allegheny, Washington, Greene, and Westmoreland Counties, has 70,000 more registered Democrats but still tends to elect Republicans: Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by 20 points in the 2016 presidential election, and Mitt Romney and John McCain both won by similar margins. Murphy, who held the seat for 15 years, ran uncontested in the last two races.
The seat should have been easy pickings for Republicans, but for the past month, the polls were tight. The Cook Political Report recently upped the seat’s rating from “Leans Republican” to “Toss Up.” On Monday morning, a new Monmouth University poll gave Lamb a six-point advantage over Saccone. Republicans were worried, and it showed: GOP-affiliated groups spent more than $9 million to support Saccone, and Trump visited the district twice.
Strategists viewed the race as somewhat of a bellwether election for Democrats heading into the midterms. Some told me that part of the reason Lamb kept the race so close was local Democrats’ frustration with Trump: They were fired up and ready to vote. But that’s only part of the equation. “If the Democrat wins, it’s because he had an individualized message, repudiated [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi, and appealed to blue-collar, white working people again,” Democratic strategist Jeff Hewitt told me ahead of the race.
The closeness of the race seems to suggest that Lamb’s moderate strategy has brought him within striking distance of Saccone—but maybe not far enough to overtake the Republican. Lamb was criticized in recent weeks by both Democrats and Republicans who thought he was being inconsistent on issues like abortion and gun control—and was merely toeing the line to pick up moderate Republican votes. One Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the campaign, told me that Lamb’s campaign “took a bet that by being a little ambiguous, he’s going to be able to appeal to more voters. I tend to think Democrats can be more highly motivated when they have a candidate that stands for something.”