The March 13 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District will be the first big race of 2018, providing a pulse check for Democrats as they head into the midterms anxious to flip control of the House.
Democrats like their candidate. Conor Lamb is a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former assistant U.S. attorney running for the open seat. But strategists are cautious because President Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016.
If Lamb even comes within striking distance of Republican Rick Saccone, it would be a major feat. It would also be a good indicator, Democrats say, of what can happen in races where the party puts more skin in the game, giving candidates an extra push to get over the finish line in November.
“We’re going to win,” predicted Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.
Ellison, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, visited Pennsylvania the weekend before Trump traveled to the state to give Saccone a boost. After multiple mishaps in early 2017 special elections, the DNC shifted its strategy, taking an under-the-radar approach in Alabama that paid off. The party appears to be doing the same in Pennsylvania.
Ellison wouldn’t divulge what resources the DNC is putting on the ground to help Lamb, but he didn’t deny the party’s presence either. “We’re confident in him,” Ellison said.
Asked why he thinks Lamb will succeed in a district that went heavily for the president, Ellison said Democrats aren’t dedicating their time to flipping Trump voters. The district is 93 percent white and nearly a third of the residents hold a college degree. Democrats are looking to the outer suburbs.
“It’s not like you have a tightly defined group of people and they’ve change their mind and they’re going to vote for someone else,” Ellison said of targeted voters. “You got a lot of people who just didn’t show up so it’s not even the same electorate we’re talking about. We’re getting people who’ve been discouraged, the fallout voters.”
Ellison doesn’t subscribe to the theory that a Democratic wave is coming but he’s hopeful Lamb can flip a district in which Democrats haven’t competed in the last two election cycles. A recent poll conducted by Democratic firm DFM Research put Lamb 3 points behind Saccone.
“Why would Trump go?” Ellison said. “They got a problem.”
Democrats on the ground weren’t particularly worried about Trump’s rally in support of Saccone, a Christian conservative, who offers a strong contrast to the centrist Lamb. If anything, Democrats thought Trump’s visit may have helped them.
“This election was destined to become a referendum,” said T.J. Rooney, former chair of Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “There’s nothing like a presidential visit to spur on Democrats in this state to care about a special election.”
The outside attention brings in more resources, and despite DNC and other party leaders playing their cards close to their chests, Rooney said Lamb is getting help, attention and resources sent his way.
Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., head of recruitment for Democrats’ House campaign arm, wouldn’t outright predict a win for Lamb, but he does see a wave coming for his party.
“If you look at all the election results the last few months, if this isn’t a wave in the making I don’t know what one is,” Heck said.
The Pennsylvania special election is in a “tough district,” Heck said, but “on the other hand there’s a reason why Trump was there.”
“I wouldn’t want to be running as a Republicans this year in about 350 seats as a matter of fact,” Heck quipped. “We’re in a time where anything can happen.”
Heck dodged questions about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s involvement in Lamb’s race, instead deferring to Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who chairs the campaign machine.
Pressed on resources DCCC might be sending Lamb’s way, Lujan sidestepped, saying a lot of people are “very interested” in the race.
Careful to not tether the national Democratic brand to Lamb, Lujan repeatedly said the candidate “is running this race.” Learning from prior mistakes, Democrats have gone to great lengths in recent months to not nationalize hotly contested elections, and harm candidates by bringing in figures that don’t sit well with voters.
“Mr. Lamb is communicating on his own, telling his own story and I think that’s the best way to connect with the voters out in Pennsylvania 18 and across the country is for candidates to be able to share who they are and their personal stories,” Lujan said.
Democratic operatives view the race differently than party leaders — at least publicly. It will be a stunner if Lamb wins, so Democrats are viewing the race as a “temperature check on Trump,” said one Democratic strategist working on 2018 campaigns.
Instead of spending an exorbitant amount of money to help Lamb and broadcasting it, the operative said, it’s best if the party keeps its distance, and not risk making the race a referendum on Democrats.
“If [Lamb] makes this a single digit race that is a massive problem for Republicans,” the strategist said.