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Race To Fill Congressional Seat In Pennsylvania Has Become Massive Battle Between Parties

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 2:20 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Votes are being counted at this moment in a closely watched special election in Pennsylvania. This is a race for a reliably safe Republican House seat near Pittsburgh. But Democrat Conor Lamb has been running a very competitive campaign against Republican Rick Saccone. NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow is watching the results come in in Canonsburg, Pa. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: Polls closed an hour and a half ago. So far, what are the results telling us?

DETROW: So Conor Lamb, the Democrat, is ahead by about 8,000 votes right now. That's about 6 percentage points. He's doing really well in the Pittsburgh suburbs. There's high turnout there. He's got a pretty wide margin. In the more white, working-class, rural parts of the district, Republican Rick Saccone is ahead. But the margins are much closer than they were between Democrats and Republicans in previous presidential contests.

We're all waiting for more results to come in from the eastern part of the district. That's where Saccone is from. Democrats have been feeling confident all along, but I would say the mood here at Lamb's party has shifted from ready to spike the football to just a little bit of breath holding right now.

SHAPIRO: And I know you've been talking to people on both sides today. As the race comes down to the final moments, what have they been saying about how it's going?

DETROW: Democrats have been feeling pretty confident. I mean, this is a district where they didn't even bother running a candidate in 2016, in 2014 where - that Trump won by 20 points. And this is neck and neck. You know, all along, Lamb's campaign was running with the national party at arm's length, saying this is about the two candidates and nothing else. They really felt like they needed to localize the race.

But I just talked to John Fetterman. He's a progressive mayor of nearby Braddock. He's run statewide a couple of times. He said, yeah, Lamb's conservative background helped a lot but that you can't discount Democratic energy to try and send a message to President Trump.

JOHN FETTERMAN: So I think people are just chomping at the bit to be able to say, you know what - you know, here is your message, Donald Trump - and send him home with Conor Lamb.

DETROW: So like I said, Lamb is doing really well in the suburbs. In previous special elections, we've seen a big shift toward Democrats in the suburbs. And a lot of that has been attributed to anti-Trump sentiment.

SHAPIRO: There's been a lot of money spent on this one House race, $10 million from outside Republican groups alone. How much has that shaped things?

DETROW: Yeah, a lot of that on the Republican side was trying to save the seat. You saw $10 million in outside money. That's from groups that were not affiliated with Saccone's campaign. Democrats spent a lot, too, but most of that came from the Lamb campaign itself.

There's been an interesting development today. For most of this race, national Democrats were staying quiet, not too involved. Suddenly today, this afternoon as votes are coming in, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the Democratic National Committee are saying, hey, we did actually spend money on this race; we spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on digital ads, on fundraising. But we tried to make a point to do it quietly so that Lamb could keep his distance.

Ari, there's been one funny development with all this money spent. Election officials were fielding all these calls today from people saying, hey, I went to the polling place, and it was closed; what's the deal? And people said, yeah, you don't actually live in the 18th District, so you can't vote today despite all the commercials you saw.

SHAPIRO: One reason that people are paying so much attention to this House race is that people are kind of looking at it as a bellwether for the 2018 midterms. How much can we actually learn from the outcome here?

DETROW: I think regardless of who wins, Lamb or Saccone, tonight is probably another positive night for Democrats. It's very close in a district that, again, went Republican for years. But I think Democrats are pretty tired of these moral victories, saying, hey, we lost by just a tiny margin. And they're not going to be too excited about a close loss here. I think they'd be frustrated. But if Lamb does win, you're going to hear a lot about it as the party tries to recruit candidates and raise money and build momentum for November.

SHAPIRO: And I suppose one way or another, the district is going to be gone in November because of Pennsylvania redistricting.

DETROW: (Laughter) Well, there's that.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's...

DETROW: And whoever wins this race needs to decide where they're going to run.

SHAPIRO: That's right. NPR's Scott Detrow reporting from Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District as the results come in. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.