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Democrat's thin lead in Pa. congressional election points to larger problems for Republicans

Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The closely watched special congressional election in western Pennsylvania was at a virtual tie with almost all the votes counted Tuesday night -- a result that suggests deep trouble for Republicans in this fall's midterm election.

As the final ballots were tallied in a district that President Donald Trump carried by a large margin in 2016, the tightness of the contest, regardless of the final winner, provided further indications that Republican campaign themes are proving insufficient to offset highly motivated Democratic voters.

The Republican establishment and Trump himself poured substantial resources and energy into the race, seeking to avoid the embarrassment of losing a district in which Democrats haven't been competitive for years.

But despite being heavily outspent, and with limited help from the national party, the Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, a former Marine and political neophyte, was narrowly leading his opponent, state lawmaker Rick Saccone.

If Lamb wins -- a result that may have to await a count of provisional and some absentee ballots later this week -- a victory promises to energize Democrats and move activists in the party to rethink where they can compete. Even a narrow loss for the Democrats, however, would be a boost to their prospects given the district's Republican tilt.

Democratic strategists generally believe the party's best chances to unseat Republicans this year are in suburban districts with large numbers of college-educated, white-collar voters who may have been turned off by Trump.

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But in Lamb, Democrats found a candidate who connected in a heavily blue-collar district deeply skeptical of the national Democratic Party. He staunchly backed the rights of gun owners, personally opposes abortion, and wants Nancy Pelosi out as House Democratic leader.

The Pennsylvania election follows a pattern that has been evident for the last year: Even in elections that the president's party has won, the trends have been troubling for Republicans. Democratic candidates have made surprisingly strong showings in some of the deepest-red territory in the country.

In the immediate term, the outcome in the Pennsylvania race is largely symbolic. It will not change the balance of power in Congress, and the winner's term will be short, lasting just through the end of the year.

Moreover, the district, Pennsylvania's 18th, is slated to be erased before the fall election. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ordered the redrawing of the state's political boundaries, finding they were improperly designed to favor Republicans. Lamb and Saccone would each have to compete in a new district in November.


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