Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district may be one of the most important races of 2018. It may also be one of the least consequential. The campaign between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone is for a House seat that will not exist in November.
But in a district that includes coal country and Pittsburgh suburbs in equal measure, the election has little to do with the current balance of power. It is about something much more important and much less tangible: the narrative.
The 18th is the heart of Trump country. In 2016, he won it by 20 points over Hillary Clinton. The House race is a dead heat.
Lamb is a 33-year-old veteran whose Homeric epithet could be “square-jawed Marine”. He has run a well-regarded campaign, wooing both suburbanites unhappy with Trump and blue-collar workers with Democratic roots who went Republican in 2016.
Saccone has floundered. A state legislator who claims to have been “a diplomat in North Korea”, he has been a weak fundraiser. National Republican groups have spent more than $10m to help him. The result has been a hodgepodge of ads, from a claim the Democrat is “Nancy Pelosi’s little Lamb” to touting Republican tax reform to simply bashing Lamb as weak on crime.
None of the attacks caught fire with voters, especially after Lamb recorded a straight-to-camera ad in which he said he would not support Pelosi.
The previous representative, pro-life Republican Tim Murphy, was forced to resign last year when it was reported he urged his mistress to have an abortion. In February, the race to succeed him took on a unique character when the state supreme court ruled the state’s congressional districts unconstitutional, due to Republican gerrymandering, and redrew the map. The result is that the 18th will be split, its Pittsburgh suburbs going into one district, the surrounding rural area to another.
Lamb has been old-fashioned. An event in Pittsburgh in February seemed more appropriate for early 20th-century Boston. Irish music blared through a banquet hall as an older crowd gulped beer from kegs and grabbed pretzels from shamrock-shaped bowls. Proceedings even closed with a rendition of Danny Boy. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was there to lend a hand.
On Sunday in Waynesburg, Lamb appeared with the head of the United Mine Workers, Cecil Roberts. Waynesburg is the seat of Greene County, which Trump won by 40 points and Ronald Reagan, in his 1984 landslide, lost by 20. It could be ground zero for Trump Democrats. At Lamb’s event, the room filled with white men in camouflage jackets and union hats.
George Campbell, a retired miner from Westmoreland, told the Guardian he was there because he had received a letter from the union. Although the terse, mustachioed 68-year-old said he “voted Democrat more than the other”, his choice in 2016 “wasn’t Hillary”. He was just worried about his pension, he said, adding that in the voting booth, “I pretty much go with what the union says”.
His union did not endorse in the 2016 election but now its leader was all out for Lamb. In a fiery speech, Roberts hailed the Democrat as “a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, social-security-believing … sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat.”
‘They have a hatred for God’
Saccone has been running close to Trump, who held a rally for him on Saturday night. The chance to speak before the president, Saccone said, was “the ultimate blessing”.
On Monday, Trump’s oldest son showed up. A vote for Saccone, he said, was a vote for his father.
“Just because [Donald Trump] is not on the ticket does not mean that everything he stands for and represents for the future isn’t on the ticket,” Donald Jr said, to a crowd of around 100 at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Elizabeth, a hardscrabble town just two miles downriver from the setting of The Deer Hunter.
Saccone has become increasingly bitter, towards the media and his opponent. In a debate, he claimed Lamb did not know the difference between North and South Korea. That brought a rebuke from the moderator. On Monday, speaking before Donald Jr, he went further.
“The other side,” he said “… has a hatred for our president … for our country. I’ll tell you some more, my wife and I saw it again today. They have a hatred for God.”
Lamb has been almost painfully non-controversial. Speaking to the Guardian on Saturday, he went out of his way to avoid questions about Trump’s rally.
“I’ve been telling people what I’m for on the issues,” he said, “not what I’m against.”
In a Trump-voting district, that may be the best strategy of all.