Pennsylvania Special Election: Polls Close In Trump Country Toss-Up

Mar 13, 2018

Updated at 5:30 a.m. ET Wednesday

Votes are still being tallied in Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District — and it appears nearly every single one will need to be counted.

The race between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb is down to the wire for this seat deep in Trump country, with confidence at Lamb's campaign early in the night giving way to supporters holding their collective breath as the results tightened to a near tie through the evening.

With all precincts reporting, The Associated Press says that the race is too close to call, with Lamb ahead of Saccone by just 677 votes. The outcome appears as though it will be decided by outstanding absentee ballots. But Lamb and national Democrats declared victory anyway, given that Saccone needed to win a huge percentage of those absentees to close the gap.

"It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it," Lamb told a roaring crowd at his election watch party at nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Introduced as "congressman-elect," the Democrat struck a conciliatory tone and promised bipartisanship once he heads to D.C.

"We fought to find common ground and we found it, almost everywhere. Democrats, Republicans, independents — each of us, Americans. ... Our job in Congress is to attack the problems, not each other," Lamb said.

But just before midnight, Saccone had come out to speak to his supporters, expressing confidence that they could still win.

"It's not over yet," the GOP nominee said. "We're going to fight all the way to the end. ... We're not giving up."

Just minutes after Saccone finished speaking, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted out a statement declaring Lamb the victor, despite AP's having said it would not call the race Tuesday evening.

"These results should terrify Republicans. ... Candidates and message matter and that was on full display in this election," DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján said.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee signaled it is still waiting for all remaining ballots to be counted.

"This race is too close to call and we're ready to ensure that every legal vote is counted," said NRCC Communications Director Matt Gorman. "Once they are, we're confident Rick Saccone will be the newest Republican member of Congress."

Allegheny County counted its absentee ballots Tuesday evening. The elections director for Washington County told CNN it had 1,195 absentee ballots returned that would not be counted until Wednesday morning, but the county later reversed course and said it would begin counting them late Tuesday evening into the wee morning hours. And officials from Westmoreland County also told CNN that the 1,138 absentee ballots would be counted shortly as well, instead of on Wednesday morning.

Even with such a photo finish, there is no provision for an automatic recount in a congressional race — only in statewide contests, per Pennsylvania election law. Voters can petition for a recount, however.

President Trump won this Pittsburgh-area district by about 20 points in 2016, but it's Lamb who has run a high-energy race to challenge Saccone, after Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., resigned last year amid a sex scandal. Republicans have privately grumbled that their candidate has been lackluster, and the Democrat seemed poised to pull off the upset.

If Lamb does eke out the win, it would be the latest sign of worry yet for Republicans this fall. It's evidence of just how motivated Democrats are in 2018 and shows that the blue-collar coalition President Trump was able to build in the 2016 campaign is not necessarily transferable to other Republicans.

While the close margin may give some solace to wary GOP members, it's still another example of Republican candidates way underperforming not just Trump's 2016 numbers but the past performance of the district, too. Murphy routinely won re-election and didn't even face a Democratic challenger the past two cycles. Other special congressional elections last year in deep red territory in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina also ended much closer than expected.

If Republicans do lose this seat, the fact they were unsuccessful also shows that the GOP's economic argument to voters and touting its tax cuts may not be enough to save the party at the ballot box, either. While early ads in Pennsylvania focused on a fiscal message, closing arguments from Republican outside groups hit Lamb on immigration and crime instead.

Trump visited the district for a rally on Saturday as a last-ditch rescue mission, where he asked his supporters, "Do me a favor. Get out on Tuesday and vote for Rick Saccone." Trump also referred to the Democrat as "Lamb the sham," saying that if elected, Lamb would vote as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wants, even though the candidate has said he would not support keeping her as leader of the Democratic caucus.

The president's visit capped off a massive effort by GOP groups to keep the seat in Republican hands. More than $10.6 million has been spent to support Saccone, about twice as much as has been spent for Lamb. That massive expenditure is despite the fact that the district won't even exist in its current form come November because of court-ordered redistricting, underscoring just how desperate Republicans were to avoid an embarrassing loss that would portend a growing blue wave.

Lamb had outside support in the final days from former Vice President Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania native. The young former prosecutor and Marine veteran homed in on local issues and eschewed most national help, and even Republicans concede he has been an unusually tough candidate.

If Saccone does win, President Trump would get credit for juicing Republican turnout in the final days. But even if he loses, the president does seem to have moved some election day voters the GOP's way, which Trump will surely seize on as well.

Data in the last week of the race backed up assertions from the district that Saccone's fundraising was weak. Of the more than $10 million spent to support his campaign, less than 10 percent was from the Saccone campaign itself. On the Democratic side, about two-thirds of the money spent to support Lamb came from his campaign.

National Democrats largely took a hands-off approach to the race and left most of the responsibility to Lamb's campaign, at least publicly. The DCCC stopped airing television ads weeks ago, leaving the Lamb campaign to purchase and air its own spots. But on the eve of the possible upset, the DCCC said it had invested more than $1 million in the race.

That mirrors the approach the national party took in last year's Alabama Senate race. In Pennsylvania, the DCCC largely spent the money in a behind-the-scenes way meant to help Lamb keep the race locally focused. The national party transferred more than $400,000 to Pennsylvania's Democratic Party and spent $170,000 on digital ads and turnout efforts.

In addition to that, the Democratic National Committee directed $370,000 into the race. The DNC sent $150,000 to the state party and helped the Lamb campaign raise an additional $220,000 through a joint email fundraising effort.

One byproduct of all that money and the television ads that blanketed the Pittsburgh media market in recent weeks was a lot of confused voters. Pittsburgh public radio station WESA reported that election officials in Allegheny County fielded calls all day from angry would-be voters wanting to know why their polling place was closed. The answer: These people don't live in the 18th Congressional District.

Democrats say that enthusiasm swing in a 20-point Trump district shows just how energized their voters are, even though it was a close race. It would be the first flip for House Republicans in the Trump era. A Georgia race also drew a lot of attention and money last year, but the GOP candidate eventually prevailed. Now, a Lamb victory would come on the heels of other Democratic victories, including big wins last year in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests, flipping 39 state legislative races from red to blue and an upset in last year's Alabama Senate race. Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit