It wasn’t clear who won the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district on Tuesday night. With Democrat Conor Lamb maintaining a narrow lead of 579 votes over Republican Rick Saccone , the result might still go either way, although that did not stop Lamb from declaring victory early Wednesday morning.
However, it was clear who lost the election: Donald Trump.
Saccone ran as an extension of Trump in a district the US president won by 20 points in 2016. He said he would be “Trump’s wingman” in Washington and touted himself as “Trump before Trump”. Saccone appeared with Trump and held campaign events with two of the president’s children as well as a number of administration officials.
The photo finish in such a deep red district made clear how much Trump’s standing has fallen since 2016 and gives Democrats increased optimism for November’s midterm elections.
Some voters cast their ballot based on Trump. Outside a polling place in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, Joe Morgan told the Guardian: “I approve of the way the president is trying to put the country in a better spot and I think voting Republican will help him do that.”
In contrast, another voter, Paul Kane, told the Guardian he voted for Lamb because “Trump’s an asshole”.
Two counties have yet to count absentee ballots, delaying any final result, but Saccone has so far performed less well with absentee voters than he did with those who cast their ballots on election day.
The vote for Libertarian candidate Drew Miller was larger than than the margin between Lamb and Saccone – despite Miller receiving less than 1% of the vote.
Speaking briefly on stage late Tuesday night, Saccone insisted he was “still fighting the fight” and promised a crowd of supporters who had enjoyed an open bar and buffet featuring meatballs and crab dip: “We’re going to fight all the way to the end.”
National Republicans echoed Saccone. In a statement, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee said: “This race is too close to call and we’re ready to ensure that every legal vote is counted. Once they are, we’re confident Rick Saccone will be the newest Republican member of Congress.”
In contrast, Democrats declared victory. Lamb took the stage at his election night party as “Congressman-elect Conor Lamb” and proclaimed to a cheering crowd: “It took a little longer than we thought, but we got there.”
In a press release sent out earlier in the evening, Ben Ray Lujan, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, preemptively congratulated Lamb on his “incredible victory” and insisted: “These results should terrify Republicans.”
Lamb had actively attempted to distance himself from national Democrats. He recorded a television ad where he made clear he would not support Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader in the House and had only a handful of national Democrats stump on his behalf. All of them were white men.
The election was not just about Trump and national issues. Lamb, a former marine with deep political roots in the district, who steadfastly avoided any mention of the White House. He also benefited from in a district that included a mix of suburban Pittsburgh and coal country. Lamb went out of his way to praise unions for their support on Wednesday morning. “I’ve never seen the unions as mobilized as they are right now,” said the Democrat.
In contrast, Saccone was a weak candidate and lackluster fundraiser, which forced outside Republican groups to spend over $10m to aid him.
The race took place under unusual circumstances. The district itself will not exist for the midterm elections after the Pennsylvania supreme court ruled the current congressional map unconstitutional. The vacancy was created when the pro-life Republican Tim Murphy resigned in disgrace after he had pressured his mistress to have an abortion.
If Lamb pulls out a win, it would be the first time Democrats have picked up a seat in the House of Representatives since Trump took office. They endured disappointing losses in special elections for the House in states such as Montana and Georgia in 2017.
Republicans did lose a special election for the United States Senate in Alabama in 2017 but only after their nominee, Roy Moore, faced credible allegations of sexually assaulting teenage girls.