The Pennsylvania special election between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb was too close to call but early Wednesday Lamb declared himself the winner with 49.8 percent of the vote. For voters in Pennsylvania and across the country, this was an unusual race with a curious back story.
Republican Tim Murphy had been having an affair with psychologist Shannon Edwards, and during a pregnancy scare asked her to have an abortion. She turned out not to be pregnant but the pro-life Murphy opted to resign and that opened up the seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district. As the election approached, that scandal gave way to the Parkland shooting.
Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15 kill 17 students but Conor Lamb did not join the anti-gun hysteria that followed. His first television ad said he “still likes to shoot” and showed him firing an AR-15 at a shooting range. Lamb, a U.S. Marine, favored universal background checks but not a ban on “assault weapons” or raising the age to purchase a rifle. For some observers, that was evidence that Lamb needed to distance himself from Democrat bosses and adopt a more conservative posture.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the district by 20 points. Last Saturday, the president addressed what CBS described as “a thunderous crowd of at least 5,000 supporters,” in an aircraft hangar new Pittsburgh. “Go out, vote for Rick,” Trump told the crowd. “This is an extraordinary man.” The Democrat, was “Lamb the sham.”
While Trump rallied the faithful, Hillary Clinton was still touring the world explaining her loss. In India, reporters asked why 52 percent of white women voted for Trump. “We do not do well with white men and we don’t do well with married, white women,” Clinton said, and more conservative men had pressured women to vote accordingly.
No word about the leverage of those white male candidates over women in the Pennsylvania race, though according to CNBC, “Lamb still benefits from the backlash against the president's turbulent debut in office, especially among women in suburban areas. Even some working-class men who voted for Trump have decided that was a mistake.”
The day before the election Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee called an end to their year-long investigation. No evidence of Russian meddling surfaced in the Pennsylvania contest. It was all about the candidates.
Saccone, 60, is a U.S. Air Force veteran, a former counterintelligence officer and Pennsylvania state representative. He is the author of God In Our Government, The Unseen War in Iraq: Insurgents in the Shadows and Living with the Enemy: Inside North Korea, among other books. As the election approached Saccone spoke of his experience negotiating with North Korean officials. The campaign showed little evidence that reporters had made any effort to engage Saccone’s ideas.
Conor Lamb, 33, is a newcomer but not a political outsider. According to one report, he “carries a last name of local political royalty” with a grandfather serving as state Senate majority leader and his uncle city controller of Pittsburgh.” The U.S. Marine’s “sterling resume” includes service as a federal prosecutor. The “tall, telegenic and even-keeled” Democrat has tried to distance himself from Nancy Pelosi but like her he opposed the Trump tax cuts. So there can be little doubt that on Nancy’s command the Marine will get down and give the San Francisco Democrat as many pushups as she demands.
For CNN, “Republicans are in the final hours of their frantic, all-out bid to save a Pennsylvania congressional district in the heart of Trump country from falling into Democratic hands.” One poll showing Lamb with a slight lead had “left the GOP bracing for what would be its most embarrassing – and ominous – loss since Donald Trump took office.” Fearful of another loss, “Republicans are downplaying expectations and trashing Saccone as a candidate.” And so on.
If Lamb prevails after absentee ballots are counted, that will unleash the Democrat-media narrative of an onrushing blue wave in the coming mid-terms. In turn, this will ramp up impeachment hysteria and obstruction of Trump’s initiatives, particularly on immigration. If the final count favors Saccone, Trump gains a reliable ally in his dealings with North Korea, and support for his domestic initiatives.
The immediate sequel to the election, meanwhile, is related to the back story. As The Economist noted, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has drawn new lines for the May primaries, so the winner will have to decide whether to run again in a new district. A possible opponent is Shannon Edwards, running as a Republican in Pennsylvania’s 14th district, which under the new plan could become the 18th district.
Edwards has no regrets for the relationship with Tim Murphy, but she expects it to be used against her. As she told reporters, “My opponents are likely to spend egregious amounts of time and money in an attempt to display my human mistakes for all to see. I was warned. I have been given explanations. I have been told to back down, and I am here to tell you, nevertheless, I will endure.”
She might even win.