Update 5:45 p.m.: The New York Times has called the race for Lamb, saying his lead “appears insurmountable based on the number of provisional, military and other absentee ballots left to count.” Other outlets, including the AP, have yet to follow suit.
In the end, the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district remains about as close as anyone could have imagined.
As of this morning, hundreds of votes — or just 0.2 percentage points — separated Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone. And while Lamb and his supporters declared victory sometime around midnight, Saccone has yet to concede.
The results remained unofficial as of noon, and the Associated Press was still labeling the race “too close to call.”
So what exactly happened?
Hours after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Lamb emerged with a multi-point lead over Saccone. That lead dwindled to less than a percentage point as more precincts came in, and by midnight the frontrunners were separated by a whisker’s edge.
Lamb’s lead continued to hold as counties like Allegheny and Westmoreland rushed to tally absentee ballots late Tuesday night, ballots they continued to tally well into this morning.
At last check, and with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Lamb led Saccone with 49.8 percent of the vote to 49.6 percent. But absentee ballot and provisional totals have yet to be confirmed in some of the four counties included in District 18 — Allegheny, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland.
In Allegheny County, the elections division today said there are approximately 128 provisional ballots that still need to be examined, along with 99 military/overseas ballots and approximately 112 or more unscanned absentee ballots. That process will begin on Friday and is expected to last several days.
“Once the process is complete, parties have five days to file any Court challenges related to the election,” the county said in a press release. “The results remain unofficial through that process.”
Even with the outstanding ballots counted, though, it’s unclear — and arguably unlikely — that Saccone can bridge the gap.
Also unclear is whether Saccone supporters will request a recount for what amounts to an eight-month term to fill former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy’s now-vacant District 18 seat. (Murphy resigned late last year amid scandal, setting up the special election to replace him.) And while Republican officials alleging voter irregularities are reportedly planning to challenge the election results, Saccone’s campaign has yet to address the issue and did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
At Saccone’s election night party in Elizabeth Township, his supporters huddled around television sets and stared rapt into their smartphones as the results were updated. They cheered when Saccone’s count climbed and booed when it didn’t. Some appeared stunned: In a district that Trump won by 20 points not two years ago, and which Murphy held for more than a decade, the GOP candidate had suddenly become the underdog.
Around midnight, Saccone said they should feel free to go home. “I know you have work tomorrow and things to do … We’re gonna be working late into the night and into tomorrow.”
Roughly an hour later and 20 miles away in Canonsburg, Lamb and his supporters were cheering what appeared to be his impending victory.
“It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it,” Lamb told the crowd.
Even with the results still unofficial or incomplete, Lamb’s razor’s-edge lead amounted to nothing less than a gargantuan win for Democrats in a district easily won by Trump — and against a candidate with his backing no less. If Lamb had only managed to keep it close, Democrats would still have considered this a victory. Instead, he held the lead all night.
“It’s not good for the Republicans if Saccone wins narrowly — and even worse if they lose,” G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., told The Incline on Monday.
How Lamb got out in front
As experts like Madonna have explained, there are a few basic reasons why Lamb was able to pull ahead.
One involves his platform: He ran as a moderate; a pro-Second Amendment and personally — although not necessarily politically — anti-abortion Democrat. In a district that trends conservative, this was almost certain to draw converts.
It could also be that the labor union swing vote went his way or that a more energized Democratic base in the Pittsburgh suburbs carried this thing. (While the 18th district has traditionally voted Republican, it’s home to around 70,000 more registered Democrats.)
“He carried suburban districts in western and southern Allegheny County, and he won back college-educated female Republican voters who had been moving away from the Republican Party,” Madonna added in a phone conversation today.
And then there’s the president.
Party loyalists and pundits have argued that this special election amounted to a referendum on President Donald Trump, whose approval rating continues to lag after a tumultuous 14 months in office. Lamb disagreed about the president’s influence on the 18th race, and Republicans, meanwhile, were blaming Saccone for running a lackluster campaign.
It’s clear, though, that many saw the Trump presidency and this election as interwoven.
Less clear is to what extent Lamb’s success in the 18th will shape future Democratic attempts to flip seats in similarly situated districts as the party looks to reclaim the House and maybe even the Senate.
Still, Democratic Party leaders were quick to tout Tuesday’s results as a sign of a turning tide.
“Let it be known that the Blue Wave of 2018 began in Pennsylvania with Conor’s victory,” state Democratic Party Chairman Jack Hanna said Tuesday night. “And this is only the beginning of the wave.”
Madonna added: “The Dems ran the perfect candidate — a candidate who had a strong military background and who refused to nationalize this election and who didn’t go after Trump. […] He made it all about the local issues, the local problems, and he fit a lot of the dimensions that one would look for in that district. He supported tariffs on steel and aluminum, for example. […] The other thing Lamb did that was brilliant was the grassroots, door-to-door campaigning. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that was critically important in his victory.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are left to figure out how this slice of Trump Country fell from their hands at such a pivotal moment.
“The bottom line here is that the Dems and Republicans have to rethink the playbook in these Trump districts. For Republicans, you can be for Trump, but you have to be careful about saying ‘I’m 100 percent behind Trump, end quote.’ And that was basically Rick Saccone’s message.”
What happens next
As for a possible attempt to challenge the election results or compell a recount, Saccone’s campaign would commit to no such scenario in speaking with reporters sometime after midnight.
In a Pennsylvania congressional election, automatic recounts are not triggered. Instead, supporters of the losing candidate must request one. It’s not clear how likely that is to happen in this case with the 18th district unlikely to survive an ongoing statewide redistricting effort and the seat unlikely to exist at the end of the year.
The Post-Gazette reported today that Republican officials alleging voter irregularities were gearing up to challenge the yet-to-be-certified 18th district results, a move that could include the impounding of all voting machines used in the election.
Saccone’s campaign told CBS News on Tuesday that if he loses his bid in the 18th, he will file to run in what will be the newly created 14th district under the redistricting plan currently undergoing legal review.
That plan — and new map — is widely expected to be in place by the May primary.
But Saccone had yet to concede the 18th special as of this afternoon, and his campaign said he’d be in legal meetings all day and was therefore unlikely to comment.
Even so, and with the results still unofficial but momentum on their side, Democrats were certain they’d already won.