Monday, March 12, 2018

BTRTN: Pennsylvania's 18th Special Election: More Than a Moral Victory This Time?

Tom makes the official BTRTN call on another pivotal special election.

How badly does the GOP want to win tomorrow’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district?  Well, Donald Trump staged a campaign-style rally on Friday there on the candidate’s behalf; Mike Pence has been there as well; and GOP special interest groups have raised almost $10 million for the race.  This is called bringing out the heaviest of artillery.

Image result for pennsylvania 18th districtWhy are they are going to this much effort in a district that is so bright red that the Democrats did not even field a candidate in this same race in either 2014 or 2016?  And why, for a district that will actually disappear once Pennsylvania’s new district map is in place – this coming November?

There is only one answer:  desperation.  They are utterly terrified of the implications of a Republican loss, a loss that would make GOP candidate Rick Saccone the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, whose early 2018 demise could very well mean an epic November disaster.  If the GOP can’t win a district like this, how can they expect to win any of the 50+ elections that are “in play.”  Indeed, by definition, such a loss would mean many, many more GOP seats could be up for grabs.

Let’s set the stage.  Tim Murphy, a prototypical arch-conservative right-to-life GOP representative, was forced to resign last October, another scandal-laden politician.  Murphy had had an affair, and after a pregnancy scare, urged his mistress to have an abortion.  This messy business came to light just days after Murphy espoused his support of anti-abortion legislation passed by the Pennsylvania House, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act" with this quote:

“Passage of H.R. 7…gives me great hope that moving forward, we will once again be a nation committed to honoring life from the moment of conception onward…”


In the wake of Murphy’s resignation, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district has become the epicenter of the political universe.  Today’s Democratic darling is a dream candidate, Conor Lamb, a 33-year old ex-U.S. Marine, U Penn grad and former prosecutor (fighting opioids!).  Lamb is telegenic and Catholic, the perfect candidate to challenge in a deep red district.  He is opposing the underwhelming Saccone, who Donald Trump managed to mention a whopping three times in a 75-minute speech ostensibly on Saccone’s behalf.  Saccone, a run-of-the-mill Pennsylvania assembly member (“weak,” according to Trump) with some ethical issues (related to rather inflated legislative expenses), has the charisma of a sack of potatoes and fundraising skills of a small town busker.

As mentioned, Murphy ran unopposed in 2014 and 2016, and in his six prior elections he won by an average of +26 points.  Pennsylvania 18th should be a lock for the GOP with any candidate.  This is not a seat that should be competitive, or “in play.”  But it is this year.  Because the GOP is in deep trouble.

The Dems record in House special elections has been consistent, with a knack for losses that pass as moral victories. In five special House elections since the 2016 elections, the Dems won the one race held by an incumbent Democrat handily, and lost four races by very competitive margins in deep red districts that should have been blow-outs.  While these losses have been painful, the truth is that turning such conservative districts into close races is a leading indicator that many far more contested GOP-help districts can be flipped.

State/ Dist.
Nov. 2016          Outcome
Trump vs   Clinton
General Election
Opponents                     (D versus R exc Cal)
Pompeo (R)
R + 31
R + 27
Apr 11
Thompson - Estes
R + 7
Zinke (R)
R + 15
R + 20
May 25
Quist  - Gianforte
R+ 6
CAL 34
Bacerra (D)
D + 100
D + 73
Jun 6
Gomez (D) - Ahn (D)
D +100
GA 6
Price (R)
R + 24
R + 1
Jun 20
Ossoff - Handel
R + 4
SC 5
Mulvaney (R)
R + 20
R + 18
Jun 20
Parnell - Norman
R + 3

Pennsylvania’s 18th district is on the western border of Pennsylvania, just south and west of Pittsburgh.  It is generally blue collar country, conservative.  Conor Lamb is, not surprisingly, running as a centrist, holding, for instance, pro-gun and pro-tariff stances, and, as a Catholic, has taken the position of opposing abortion while still being pro-choice.

Polling has been relatively light and inconclusive, indicative of an extremely tight race. Of the three polls in March, Lamb has led in two of them, +6 and +3, while Saccone led in the third by +3.  But the trend is clearly moving toward Lamb.  The last three Gravis polls have shown Saccone ahead by +12 in January +6 in February and +3 in early March.  Monmouth showed a flip from Saccone +3 in February to Lamb +6 this week.  Emerson has done just one poll, but it was in March and had Lamb at +3.

This is basically a toss-up, and the outcome will hinge on turnout.  Will this one go the way of Kansas’ 4th, Montana’s at-large, Georgia’s 6th or South Carolina’s 5th, all single-digit Dem losses but moral victories in their margin?  Or will the vaunted Dem volunteer machines that helped win other races across the land finally score a breakthrough win?

A close loss would not be meaningless.  The Dems simply don’t need to win districts like these in November to gain control of the House.  They just need to win districts that are typically contested.

But we at BTRTN believe that Conor Lamb, like Doug Jones in Alabama, will pull off this minor miracle, and will win Pennsylvania’s 18th election by a nose, 51/49.   

We base this on the following:

The polling is moving in Lamb’s direction.  Momentum matters.

The Democrats have been getting out the vote.  Don’t mess with Indivisible.

And Lamb, like Jones, is a strong candidate.  Saccone, like Roy Moore, is a weak one.  Ultimately races do come down to the candidates, and if the GOP wants to keep the House come November, they need far better candidates than these.

Post election:  We got this one right on, though a tad closer than we thought, as Conor Lamb won in a 49.8% to 49.6% squeaker over Saccone.

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