Dem leads but Pennsylvania House race too close to call

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CANONSBURG, Pa. — The special election House race in Pennsylvania was too close to call Wednesday morning, with Democrat Conor Lamb leading by 641 votes but more than 1,000 absentee votes still to be counted.

Lamb’s chances of completing an upset win over Republican Rick Saccone were promising, and the Democrat declared victory early Wednesday morning.

“It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it. You did it,” Lamb told supporters at his election night party shortly before 1 a.m., after he was introduced as “congressman-elect.” 

Lamb led by 641 votes with 100 percent of the precincts reporting Wednesday morning, according to The Associated Press

Washington County had 1,195 absentee ballots still out early Wednesday, however, while CNN reported that there were 203 absentee ballots were left to count in Greene County.

Greene County ballots won’t be counted until Wednesday morning, but Washington County officials reversed course and announced they would count those votes as soon as possible. 

Both counties lean Republican, so Saccone will have to win a commanding share of those outstanding ballots. 

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That Saccone is in deep danger of losing the race is a surprise in the first place given the district’s makeup. President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out ‘subversion’ at VA MORE won it in 2016 by a 20-point margin, and it had been held by a Republican in the House until Rep. Tim MurphyTim MurphyTrump to Pa. GOP: Challenge congressional map all the way to Supreme Court Pennsylvania Supreme Court releases new congressional map Dems don’t plan to put more money into heated Pa. race MORE (R) resigned last year in the face of allegations that he’d had an affair.

As a result, Lamb’s win would be another reason for nervous Republicans worried about a wave election this fall to sound the alarm bells. 

There is no automatic recount provision for down-ballot races, only for statewide races. But voters can petition for one if they show cause, a likely scenario considering the tight margin.

Lamb won 57 percent of the vote in Allegheny County, while Saccone hit the same margin in his stronghold of Westmoreland County. To Lamb’s benefit, Allegheny is the largest county in the district. But Saccone had been able to close the gap with majorities in Washington and Greene counties.  

At the Lamb campaign watch party, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald thanked supporters on behalf of the candidate and urged them to “hang in there.” 

“We like where we are … in a race nobody gave us a chance to even be close in,” he said. “Let’s keep up the faith and let’s keep going.”

Saccone spoke at his own rally shortly after, promising “we are going to fight all the way to the end.”

“We are not giving up,” he said. 

The House Democratic campaign arm declared victory for Lamb in a statement before those remaining absentee ballots were counted, while the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a more measured statement reaffirming that the race is “too close to call.”

Republicans concede that Lamb’s strong performance on Tuesday night is a bad omen for the party going forward and some warned of future GOP retirements to come in the wake of the special election. Lamb forced the GOP to send major surrogates like President Trump to the district, and to spend more than $10 million to keep the race this close.

Republicans have been fretting in recent days that Saccone could lose the 18th District race thanks to high Democratic enthusiasm in the year since Trump took office, as well as lackluster fundraising by the GOP candidate.

Saccone has a lengthy résumé as a former Air Force intelligence officer and current state legislator, but Lamb outraised him by a factor of more than four.

That gap prompted GOP outside groups to flood the district with more than $10 million to try to save Saccone.

By Tuesday, many Republicans were pessimistic about Saccone’s chances. A Monday poll by Monmouth University found Lamb leading no matter the turnout projection, which appeared to be confirmation of what many in the GOP had feared.

“He has a good bio, he’s just not a good candidate,” one Republican member of Congress told The Hill shortly after the poll came out. “The fundraising, charisma — ideologically, the issues are working against him. There are candidate flaws.”

Other Republicans began publicly attempting to lower expectations for Saccone by playing up the Democratic registration advantage here, even though Republicans regularly clean up in federal elections.

The Rust Belt district became a flash point in the battle for the House majority, with Democrats looking for a symbolic victory in a deep-red district to send a warning sign to Republicans.

Lamb ran a moderate campaign as he looked to navigate a reliably GOP district. He vowed to vote against Pelosi as the party’s leader, steered away from his party’s calls for gun control and said he’s personally opposed to abortion — though he supports abortion rights.

That statement against Pelosi neutralized one of the GOP’s strongest attacks, lumping a candidate in with the well-known liberal standard-bearer.

He also focused heavily on mobilizing union workers, a critical part of Tuesday’s electorate that includes many registered Democrats that backed Trump in 2016. Labor leaders both nationally and in the area ferociously worked to boost Lamb, criticizing Saccone for his support for “Right to Work” legislation that hurts unions.

But even as Lamb gained ground, Republicans flooded the zone in hopes of avoiding an embarrassing loss.

In the final stretch of the race, the White House and its allies came out in force to buoy Saccone. Trump traveled to the district over the weekend to hold a campaign rally, although he reportedly called Saccone “weak” in private.

Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayCalls mount from Dems to give platform to Trump accusers  Top Oversight Dem pushes for White House opioid briefing More than 100 WH staffers still worked on temporary security clearance a year after election: report MORE, a top Trump adviser, also stumped with Saccone, while Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpTrump Jr. praises ‘spirit’ of poverty-stricken Indians: ‘Still a smile on a face’ State Dept. says it did not coordinate with Trump Jr. on India speech The Hill’s 12:30 Report MORE, the president’s oldest son, toured a local candy store with the Pennsylvania Republican. Vice President Pence also traveled to the district.

Updated at 7:20 a.m.

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