Rick Saccone styled himself president’s wingman but faced tight race with Democrat Conor Lamb in district Trump won by 20 points in 2016
Democrat Conor Lamb has claimed victory in a very tight special election race for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, where his surprisingly strong showing in a Republican stronghold dealt a blow to Donald Trump.
On Wednesday morning, with all precincts reporting, unofficial results had Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone by 627 votes.
Saccone refused to concede as provisional and military ballots were still uncounted. However, the number of outstanding ballots was reportedly less than Lamb’s lead, leaving a recount as the only way Saccone could win.
Saccone, who ran as an extension of Trump in a district the US president won by 20 points in 2016, had said he would be “Trump’s wingman” in Washington and touted himself as “Trump before Trump”.
He appeared with Trump in a rally only days before the election and held campaign events with two of the president’s children as well as a number of administration officials.
The photo finish in a deep red district made clear how much Trump’s standing has fallen since 2016 and gives Democrats increased optimism for November’s midterm elections.
Some voters cast their ballot based on Trump. Outside a polling place in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, Joe Morgan told the Guardian: “I approve of the way the president is trying to put the country in a better spot and I think voting Republican will help him do that.”
In contrast, another voter, Paul Kane, told the Guardian he voted for Lamb because “Trump’s an asshole”.
The vote for Libertarian candidate Drew Miller was larger than than the margin between Lamb and Saccone – despite Miller receiving less than 1% of the vote.
Speaking briefly on stage late Tuesday night, Saccone insisted he was “still fighting the fight” and promised a crowd of supporters who had enjoyed an open bar and buffet featuring meatballs and crab dip: “We’re going to fight all the way to the end.”
National Republicans echoed Saccone. In a statement, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said: “This race is too close to call and we’re ready to ensure that every legal vote is counted. Once they are, we’re confident Rick Saccone will be the newest Republican member of Congress.”
In contrast, Democrats declared victory. Lamb took the stage at his election night party as “Congressman-elect Conor Lamb” and proclaimed to a cheering crowd: “It took a little longer than we thought, but we got there.”
In a press release sent out earlier Tuesday night Ben Ray Lujan, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, preemptively congratulated Lamb on his “incredible victory” and insisted: “These results should terrify Republicans.”
Lamb had actively attempted to distance himself from national Democrats. He recorded a television ad where he made clear he would not support Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader in the House and had only a handful of national Democrats stump on his behalf. All of them were white men.
The election was not just about Trump and national issues. Lamb, a former marine with deep political roots in the district, ran as a moderate who steadfastly avoided any mention of the White House. He also benefited from heavy support from organized labor in a district that included a mix of suburban Pittsburgh and coal country. Lamb went out of his way to praise unions for their support on Wednesday morning. “I’ve never seen the unions as mobilized as they are right now,” said the Democrat.
In contrast, Saccone was a weak candidate and lackluster fundraiser, which forced outside Republican groups to spend over $10m to aid him.
The race took place under unusual circumstances. The district itself will not exist for the midterm elections after the Pennsylvania supreme court ruled the current congressional map unconstitutional. The vacancy was created when pro-life Republican Tim Murphy resigned in disgrace after it was revealed he had pressured his mistress to have an abortion.
A Lamb win would be the first time Democrats have picked up a seat in the House of Representatives since Trump took office. They endured disappointing losses in special elections for the House in states such as Montana and Georgia in 2017.