Rating Change: Pennsylvania 18 Special Moves to Toss-Up

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 28, 2018 · 12:00 PM EST

Don’t say we didn’t warn you. 

“While the Pennsylvania race isn’t getting much attention now, that should change next year, considering all of the 2017 special elections eventually became national stories,” my colleague Leah Askarinam wrote in the Dec. 15 issue of Inside Elections. “By the numbers, the 18th District special election shouldn’t be particularly competitive. But the 2017 slate of special elections demonstrated that every race could turn into a struggle for Republicans, even in favorable territory.”

With two weeks left before the March 13 special election, that’s exactly the scenario that is playing out.

Republicans have spent nearly two months attacking Democrat Conor Lamb with television ads, but he’s not only still standing but well-positioned to take over a GOP seat in western Pennsylvania that Donald Trump won by 19 points in 2016, 58-39 percent. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the district by 18 points, 58-41 percent.

State Rep. Rick Saccone, the GOP nominee, doesn’t have the baggage that Roy Moore brought to the Alabama Senate special election, but he is a stark contrast to the younger, more telegenic Democrat and has proved to be a mediocre fundraiser.

Outside groups are often best at attacking opponents (which is what GOP outside groups are doing to Lamb) while candidates are often tasked with defining and defending themselves. But Saccone hasn’t had the resources to do that (particularly compared to Lamb), leaving him exposed to Democratic attacks and leaving a disproportionate number of Trump supporters on the sidelines. The president remains relatively popular in the area but it’s not translating into support for Saccone.

We’re changing our Inside Elections rating from Lean Republican to Toss-Up. 

What might be most fascinating is that both parties are fighting over a seat that is on the verge of extinction. 

The state supreme court threw out the congressional map and ordered new lines for the 2018 elections, but directed the 18th District special election to take place under the “old” lines because the race had already started. 

Win or lose, Lamb is most likely to run in the new 17th District, where he’d likely face GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus. The new 17th District only takes in 20 percent of the old 18th District, but it’s where Lamb lives and is more Democratic than the new 14th District, which is comprised of a majority of territory from the old 18th District and is more Republican. Saccone doesn’t live in the newly-drawn 14th either, but is expected to seek re-election there if he wins the special election. 

That means this is a fight for the narrative of the 2018 elections. Republicans explained away previous special election results by either winning or blaming Roy Moore. But losing a district that Trump won by 18 points with a state legislator as the nominee will be more difficult to dismiss. In that way, it could be a bigger political earthquake than Alabama because Republicans won’t have the Roy Moore excuse.