In the latest special election, Democrat Conor Lamb triumphed over Republican Rick Saccone by a mere 627 votes. This qualifies as a shock given that President Trump triumphed in this district by 20 points, and that the district’s former Representative, Tim Murphy, had run unopposed in 2014 and 2016. However, this election serves as more of a political bellwether than a particularly valuable pickup on its own merits given that the state of Pennsylvania is court ordered to re-draw its congressional districts before the 2018 midterm elections.
Outside groups jumped in early and often to support Saccone, with the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund each spending over $2M to support the candidate. While Lamb did not receive nearly the same level of outside support, he fundraised prodigiously, eventually spending $3.2M on media. Though Lamb and his supporters were outspent $7.5M to $4.4M, the disparity in spending can be deceiving. Broadcast frequency, and hence audience delivery, was much closer given the lower rates afforded to Federal candidates. The split in broadcast share of voice was only 57%-43% in favor of Saccone, much narrower than the difference in spending.
As has been noted, perhaps one of the most important lessons to draw from this race comes regarding messaging. Republicans were expected to focus heavily on their major legislative accomplishment, the passage of their tax bill. At first this was the case, with both the NRCC and the CLF airing ads regarding the legislation. However, the number of ad airings focused on the tax bill peaked in early February, and had left the airwaves entirely by the week of February 25th. These ads were replaced by ones talking about the dangers of illegal immigration and drugs in the last weeks before the election. On the Democratic side, Conor Lamb ran away from the Democratic establishment, airing ads touting his bipartisan credentials and military service, and even saying he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. He also was able to speak straight to camera delivering his message directly to the voters, something outside groups could not do with Saccone.
As is often the case in politics, this one election will be overanalyzed by nearly everyone. However, despite the fact that this district will not exist this time next year, there are lessons to take away from this special election. The good news for Democrats is obviously that they won a district that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. However, candidates with the credentials and bipartisan appeal of Conor Lamb do not grow on trees, and candidates can only run away from their party for so long. For Republicans, this special election serves as a test run for their messaging in the midterms, and it looks as though conclusions are already being drawn regarding the efficacy of tax reform as a messaging tool. It is also worth noting that Democrats still hold a voter registration advantage in this district, and though many of these voters have not voted Democrat in some years, they are likely more predisposed to vote for a conservative Democrat than many other parts of the country. Additionally, the lack of a primary may have helped Lamb, as he did not have to lean left on issues like immigration, guns, and the national party gave him a pass on voting for Nancy Pelosi as speaker.