GOP Rick Saccone’s PA Loss to Democrat Connor Lamb— “Team Red’s” Canary in the 2018 Political Coal Mine March 15, 2018
“Canary in the coal mine.” This phrase refers to caged canaries that miners would carry down into mine tunnels with them. If deadly gases such as carbon monoxide collected in the mine, these gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, therefore, giving miners the warning to immediately exit the tunnels.
Since Demagogue Donald has sat in the Oval Office, the GOP has had more than several of its nominees/political canaries go down to defeat. Democrats have flipped 39 GOP legislative seats all over the country, many of them of in “lobster Red” districts in special state legislative elections. These elections were held to replace seats left vacant by Republican lawmakers because of death, retirement, or appointment to other positions. On 12/12/2017, Democrat Doug Jones also upset GOPer Roy Moore in “Crimson” Alabama in a special U.S. Senate contest to replace GOPer Jeff Sessions, now Donald’s Attorney General. The state legislative GOP defeats were ignored or “spun” as involving minor races. In Moore’s case, GOPers chalked his loss up to his being a morally flawed candidate. Since Trump took over, all but one of the U.S. House special elections that were held were run on GOP turf. “Team Red” won all of those. Now, however, the GOP’s congressional team has clearly lost one big canary in its political coal mine, less than eight months before the 11/06/2018 midterms. In a nail biter, Democrat Connor Lamb defeated GOPer Rick Saccone in the present PA 18th Congressional District (CD), a stunning upset. With all the precincts and most absentee ballots counted, Lamb defeated Saccone by 627 votes, or 113, 813 to 113, 186, 49.8%-49.6%. There are still about 500 provisional, military overseas, and some additional absentee ballots to be counted (CNN, Rocha, Ries, et al, 3/14/2018, 9:31 AM ET,nytimes.com, 3/14/18). Even with these votes yet to be tallied, Lamb’s lead appears insurmountable. On 3/14/2018, NBC News and the NY Times finally declared Lamb the winner (nytimes.com,3/14/18, Kornacki, NBC). Let’s analyze this election.
The current PA 18th CD stretches from that state’s southwest corner up north past Pittsburgh International Airport to the Ohio River. It then cuts east across the Monongahela River. The 18th includes parts of four counties: Allegheny, (home to 43% of the district’s voters), Westmoreland, (33%), Washington (22%), and Greene (2%) (fivethirtyeight.com, Rakich, 3/12/18). In the southern Pittsburgh section, the Allegheny County area, the 18th there is a diverse range of suburbs, including wealthy Mount Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, middle-class Bethel Park, and working-class Elizabeth. The city of Greensburg, in Westmoreland County is part of the 18th. Westmoreland, Washington, and Greene Counties are mainly rural. Washington County has natural gas wells and underground coal mining. Greene County leads PA in bituminous coal production. The PA 18th has that state’s second oldest electorate (post-gazette.com, 12/22/17, CQ & Barone 14 Political Almanacs). Although only 10.7% of Americans are unionized, about 23% of the voters are union members in PA’s 18th (huffingtonpost.com, Marans, 3/13/18).
Although there are 70,000 more registered Dems than GOPers, since the mid-1990’s, the 18th has trended increasingly “Red.” The latest Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) gives this district an R+11 score. In 2012, the 18th had gone for Romney by 17 points. In 2016, Donald clobbered Hillary by nearly 20 points (CQ 14, Rakich, fivethirtyeight.com, 3/12/18). Eight-term GOP Rep. Tim Murphy supported several union positions, including making it easier for unions to organize. He secured endorsements from the unions and ran unopposed in 2014 & 2016. However, Murphy, who opposed abortion rights, was caught encouraging a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to get an abortion. He resigned in 10/2017, setting up this special election (huffingtonpost, Bobic & Marans, 3/13/18, fivethirtyeight.com, Rakich). Based on the 18th’s recent political history, the “conventional wisdom” was that another member of “Team Red” would easily win.
Politics, however, is decided by the actual voters, not by armchair pundits’ musings. The quality of the candidate is often crucial. In the PA 18th, the Democrats picked a candidate from central casting, 33-year old Conor Lamb. D.C. native Lamb grew up in Allegheny County’s Mount Lebanon Township. He comes from a politically active Pittsburgh family. His grandfather, Thomas F. Lamb, served as the Dem. Majority Leader in the PA State Senate from 1970-1974, and later served as Sec. of Legislative Affairs under Dem. Gov. Bob Casey Sr., the late father of PA’s current U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. Conor’s uncle, Michael Lamb, is Pittsburgh’s Controller (See CQ 14, post-gazette.com 5/10/15). Conor attended both Catholic elementary and senior high schools. He obtained his undergraduate and law school degrees from the University of PA. After law school, Lamb was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was stationed on the Okinawa Island Marine base where he prosecuted rape and sexual assault cases. In 2013, he completed his active duty service as a Captain and joined the Marine Corps Reserves. In 2017, he prosecuted and convicted a Marine officer who had lied under oath and to the Washington Post about a sexual misconduct case (washpost.com, 4/13/17, Marimow & Cox). Lamb was appointed an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Pittsburgh office. In that post, where he served from 2014-2017, Lamb led prosecutions involving opioid-related deaths, other violent crimes, and drug and gun trafficking (See post-gazette, Torsten, 9/02/15, Torsten, 8/02/16, Mandak, m.call.com). Lamb was nominated by the state Dem. convention to run in the special election for Cong. Murphy’s seat (twitter.com/PAD, 11/19/17).
In his campaign, Lamb emphasized the heroin crisis, jobs, standing up for unions, health care, and protecting Medicare and Social Security (conorlamb/priorities). In this moderate/conservative Rust Belt area which Trump had handily carried, Lamb attacked GOP Speaker Ryan and his Congress for their regressive tax reform bill for the top 1%. He indicated that he would not support Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for Speaker, a perpetual “bogeywoman” for GOPers and many conservative voters. Lamb supported tariffs for steel, just like Donald and his GOP opponent. With 18,000 United Steelworkers union members living in the 18th, not to do so would have constituted political suicide (See Hohmann, 3/14/18, Wash. Post). In this gun owning area, Lamb opposed new regulations but wanted a stronger system of background checks. Catholic Lamb believes that “life begins at conception,” but opposes additional abortion restrictions (See Marans, huffingtonpost.com, 3/12/18, CNN, Bradner, 3/13/18). He, therefore, follows most liberal positions but takes some pro- business and social stances that do not antagonize his union and more traditional constituents. Charismatic and good-looking Lamb tirelessly met constituents. He organized a very competent get out the vote operation. Unions, that had previously backed GOP Cong. Murphy, endorsed Lamb and canvassed door to door for him. The only out-of-state campaigner that came to campaign with him was former VP Joe Biden, who grew up in Rust Belt/ blue collar PA (nytimes.com, Martin, 3/08/18, huffingtonpost.com, Marans, 3/12/18, nytimes.com, Burns & Martin, 3/14/18).
Meet Rick Saccone (60), Lamb’s GOP rival. Allegheny County native Saccone received a 1987 Master’s Degree from the Naval Post Graduate School and a 2000 Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. He served as a U.S. Air Force officer working in counter intelligence. After resigning from the Air Force, he was a civilian employee of the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2004-2005(post-gazette.com, 2/27/17, pennlive.com, 2/2017). He spent 12 years in S. Korea working in business (philly.com, post-gazette.com, 11/11/2017). Saccone claimed in his official biography that he worked in N. Korea on “an agreement meant to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.” In his special election campaign, he ran ads saying he had “spent one year on a diplomatic mission in N. Korea and negotiated with N. Koreans.” This claim was challenged by former colleagues as misleading. A S. Korean representative on this project stated this account was “inaccurate.” He added that of “all the Americans I worked with, I would rank Saccone at the bottom (“The Guardian,” Haas & Jacobs, 3/10/18).” Saccone first won election to the PA House of Representatives in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012, 2014, and 2016 (ourcampaigns.com, legis.state.pa.us). In 11/2017, Saccone became the GOP nominee in the 18th CD special election (post-gazette, Potter, 11/11/17).
In this campaign, Saccone promised to be Trump’s “wingman” in the House. He repeatedly bragged, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump (Wash. Post, Hohmann, Deppsich, & Greve, 3/14/18).” Saccone sure was. He supported the tax cut and wanted to repeal Obmacare (CNN, Bradner, 3/13/14). In a heavily union district, Saccone supported anti-labor right-to-work legislation and unions, as previously noted, rallied against him (See Wash. Post, Weigel, 1/17/18). In the PA House, fundamentalist Baptist Saccone introduced bills to limit abortion rights. He attracted attention for introducing a bill to require public schools in PA to post “In God We Trust” in every school building (foxnews.com, 10/25/13, pennlive.com, 2/2017). And just like Donald, Saccone defended AL’s Roy Moore against sexual assault accusations (Potter, post-gazette, 12/07/17). In the PA legislature, Saccone even voted against protecting puppies from cruelty (shareblue.com, 3/05/18)! In an area hit by opioid abuse, Saccone harshly told a worried mother that there was no funding to help her addicted son (shareblue.com, 3/13/18).
Many GOPers, Trump included, privately trashed Saccone as a very poor candidate. He was uninspiring. His ads were terrible. He raised only $900,000. The GOP outside groups and GOP-leaning ones raised over $14 million for Saccone, overwhelming the $6 million Lamb and outside Dem. leaning groups spent on this race (nytimes.com Burns and Martin, 3/14/18, shareblue.com, 3/09/18). The PA 18th will be redistricted after 11/2018. If Saccone and Lamb want to run again, they will have to go to other districts. So why did the GOP work 24/7 to bail out Saccone? They finally understood that a loss in the PA 18th, “Trump country,” would be seen as indicating that if Dems can win here they can win nearly anywhere in 2018. Dems would, therefore, stand a good chance of retaking the net 24 seats they need to flip the House (See nytimes.com, Martin, 3/08/18). Donald came to the 18th twice and gave wacky rambling speeches. Son Don Jr. also came to bail out Saccone as well as VP Pence. It did not matter. Although Saccone carried most of the Trump areas in the 18th on the W. VA border, Lamb made just enough inroads in these rural areas to give voters in suburban Allegheny County the chance to allow Lamb to narrowly triumph (See nytimes.com, Baker & Shear, 3/14/18). There are 119 House districts held by GOPers that are “bluer” than the PA 18th, an ominous sign (shareblue.com, 3/13/18). With Lamb’s upset win, Democratic voter enthusiasm will be sky high. Former VP Biden additionally noted that a Lamb victory will probably encourage half a dozen more House GOPers not to run (nytimes.com, Martin, 3/08/18).
Democrats have now shown by emphasizing local bread and butter issues that they can win back Rust Belt blue collar defectors to Trump. While urban/ suburban women powered VA Democrats to victory in 11/2017 and black women gave AL Doug Jones his “Blue” Senate victory, swing voters and organized labor gave Lamb his win. In the rural PA coal mining town of Waynesburg, 57% of the residents went for Trump, but 54% voted for Lamb (huffingtonpost.com, Bobic & Marans, 3/13/18). IMHO, Democrats must turn out both their base and swing voters to win (See Leonharadt, nytimes.com). And again, general turnout in the PA 18th proved crucial. Democrats turned out 79% of their 2016 votes, the GOP just 53% (Morris, G. Elliot, twitter.com). Yes, nearly eight months to go to the 2018 midterm is a political lifetime. However, Democrats now have a winning playbook. Congratulations Connor Lamb!