- Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
- Voters in Pennsylvania are heading to the polls Tuesday for a highly watched special election in the state’s 18th Congressional District.
- The result could have implications for President Donald Trump.
- But other factors have caused the Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, to surge.
PITTSBURGH – Driving through Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District in recent weeks, something immediately stands out.
The yard signs. They are everywhere. And the majority of them are for the Democrat Conor Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor vying to win the district’s vacant House seat in a Tuesday special election.
As someone who grew up in the district, calling its northernmost point of Mt. Lebanon home for about 20 years, I have never seen the lawns littered with yard signs quite like this for anything less than a presidential election.
“People are begging me for yard signs,” Lynn Heckman, a member of the Collier Democratic Committee, told me ahead of a rally Lamb held with former Vice President Joe Biden last week. “I have people who want them in their yard so bad. I’ve never seen anybody want yard signs like this. Ever.”
Another thing is quite noticeable if you’re in the district: the TV ads, most of which fall into one of two categories:
- Ads on behalf of the Republican Rick Saccone, a state legislator, lobbing attacks at Lamb for his record as a federal prosecutor or trying to attach him to national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whom Lamb said he would not support.
- Ads from Lamb that seek to dispel the content of the negative ads about him.
- Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Voters at all levels – from the most committed to the casual observer – are talking about the ads and how much they hate them.
Warren Bourgeois, the former longtime Republican mayor of Pleasant Hills, Pennsylvania, told NBC News the ads were “terrible,” while the woman seated next to him in a car could only shake her head.
“You can’t turn on your internet without being interrupted every five minutes with an ad,” he said.
After years of voting for Tim Murphy, the Republican representative who resigned in disgrace last year following an abortion-related scandal, as well as for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Bourgeois is voting for Lamb.
He’s a snapshot of the typical voter in Pennsylvania’s 18th District: older, white, and someone who could be swayed to vote for the “right” candidate on either side of the aisle. An onslaught of political ads isn’t going to win his vote – what will is the appearance of independence from the powers that be.
In this case, that candidate is Lamb.
Lamb’s surge isn’t only because of Trump backlash
Everyone wants to make this election a referendum on Trump. And if Lamb can pull off an upset in a district that went for Trump by 20 points in 2016, Republicans will be scrambling ahead of the midterms, knowing that no district is safe enough from what could be a Democratic wave.
Saccone’s campaign has been about bear-hugging Trump. Lamb, however, hasn’t mentioned Trump at all. He hasn’t sought to tie himself to national Democrats, and he has run as localized of a race as you can in 2018.
Lamb has expressed support for the Second Amendment and a tax cut for the middle class, though he vehemently opposes the Republican tax law. He opposes abortion personally but supports abortion rights.
- Getty Images
Even Trump, who visited the district on Saturday, appeared to echo what many Republicans have said privately.
Lamb is a pretty good candidate – someone formidable in a district like this. The president said he didn’t want to meet Lamb because he “might like him, and then Rick is going to be very angry at me.”
This is not to say Trump’s hasn’t played any role with voters in the area. Rich Nicola, a 58-year-old union carpenter, told me ahead of a rally for Lamb last week that Trump had made white men like himself look terrible.
“He makes us look like jagoffs,” he said.
Saccone hasn’t run the exciting campaign
Hours after Trump’s visit to Pennsylvania, reports emerged that the president privately calls Saccone a “weak” candidate. That appears to be the thinking of some Trump voters, too.
Edward Yorke, a 63-year-old union steelworker who said he voted for Trump, told CNN that Lamb “would give me his ear.”
Those voting for Saccone seem to be doing so to advance the president’s agenda, and less so because they’ve been overly impressed by Saccone as a candidate.
“I like Lamb, but Trump’s agenda is what I need,” Larry Butka, a lifelong Democrat and steelworker who voted for Trump, told NBC News.
Butka’s mindset seems to be shared by the conservative-leaning voters I know best in the district: my parents.
My father, a lifelong Republican, praised the GOP tax law for its immediate effects while insisting lawmakers needed to do something serious on gun control. He mentioned Lamb, expressing skepticism about whether he was up for the job, but didn’t go as far as saying he would vote for Saccone.
Trump’s gambit on tariffs had little to no effect
With polling in the race tightening, Trump made a move with an eye toward the Tuesday election, announcing new tariffs on steel and aluminum. The idea was that such a move from Trump would go a long way with voters in an area that at one time made its name in both industries.
But it hasn’t worked out as planned.
For starters, both Saccone and Lamb have supported the tariffs. And polling has found that just 4% of voters say the decision has influenced their vote, while only a plurality says the tariffs will help the region.
Though you’ll see a ton of ink spilled about how the region is yearning for the return of the steel industry – which was decimated decades ago – many in the Pittsburgh area have accepted that the economy has moved on. The city has rebounded from problems that plagued the Rust Belt in the 1970s and ’80s much better than places like Cleveland and Detroit.
Instead of talking about a new steel mill, people are talking about Amazon’s new headquarters.
“It would be over the rainbow for us,” Darrin Kelly, a Pittsburgh firefighter and president of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, told me. “We would be so happy if we got it. It is an economy-changing type of thing.”
Saccone is quite different from his predecessor
- Brendan McDermid/Reuters
There’s yet another factor helping Lamb out that does not have to do directly with the president: Saccone isn’t Murphy.
Some Democratic-leaning union voters at a Lamb rally made a point to mention they had no issue voting in Murphy for years, as he was “for the unions.”
“He voted for them,” Jim Nicola, a 56-year-old union carpenter, told me at a Lamb rally. “Didn’t like a lot of the other stuff that I was for, but I always thought I have to have money coming to me first. Murphy was with me on that. So I didn’t mind voting for Murphy.”
People are excited about Lamb – and Republicans know it
The excitement around the Lamb campaign in most obvious in both candidates’ fundraising numbers, where Lamb has crushed Saccone. Outside Republican groups have sought to make up the difference by injecting millions into the race to help prop up Saccone.
Al Quaye, a Republican from the district, told me his family members had reacted tepidly to the race. Meanwhile, in Mt. Lebanon, Lamb’s hometown, and Upper St. Clair, another affluent Pittsburgh suburb in the district’s northernmost region, Lamb’s Republican friends “are going to change who they’re voting for because of him,” he said.
“This is definitely worrisome for Republicans,” Quaye said, adding that Saccone should have some success converting Democrats in the southern part of the district.
But in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Saccone’s home, Marge Eiben, a 54-year-old Democrat, said ahead of a Lamb rally that many people she knows “are paying attention now.”
“There’s a lot of people who are woke,” she said. “And they need to be.”