PA 2018 Election 1

What does PA-18 Election Mean for Trump, Republicans, and the Democratic Party?

Democratic candidate Conor Lamb won the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District on Tuesday, March 13. In a district and state which President Donald Trump won in the 2016 Presidential election, Lamb’s win for the Democrats may predict how both the Democratic and Republican parties navigate their campaigns in the 2018 midterm elections.

Former-Congressman Tim Murphy, a Republican, resigned from Pennsylvania’s 18th District’s seat in the House last year after reports that he encouraged a woman, with whom he had an extramarital affair, to have an abortion.

Primary elections were not held in the race. Instead, nominees were chosen by each party, itself. The Republican Party held a special convention on Nov. 11, 2017, to choose a nominee through a conferee process involving 215 local Republican activists; the Democratic Party held their nominating convention on Nov. 19, 2017; and the Libertarian Party of Allegheny County and the Libertarian Party of Washington County nominated a candidate via party caucus.

Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District is located in Western Pennsylvania, and it borders the state of West Virginia; it includes portions of Greene, Washington, Allegheny, and Westmoreland counties. The district has a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) score of R+11, meaning that it tends to vote more Republican.

“As a native Pennsylvanian, I think the recent special election is a good example of the political culture of the state,” said Stephen Chapman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science. “Pennsylvania is always labeled a swing state, but prior to 2016, it had not gone to a Republican presidential candidate since 1988,” he said.

Chapman explained that the reason for this disparity in voting within the state is because of the politically-splintered geography of Pennsylvania.

PA 2018 Election 2“The areas of Philadelphia [and] Pittsburgh, and the surrounding suburbs are more urban, while the rest of the state is more rural, hence the nickname, ‘Pennsyltucky,’” Chapman said. “In previous elections, those more liberal, urban hotspots outweighed the votes of the more conservative, rural areas in presidential elections,” Chapman explained. “However, if we take it to the Congressional-district level, Conor Lamb’s strategy becomes more understandable,” he said.

This special election was the last election that will was held under its former configuration, which was created in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Legislature; new districts have been drawn in accordance with the ruling of the state’s Supreme Court case of League of Women Voters v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which will be in effect during the 2018 general elections. Before the newest configuration, Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional district was “a mixture of Democrat-leaning Pittsburgh suburbs and rural areas to the Southwest and Southeast of the city,” Chapman said.

Lamb ran his campaign as a more moderate Democrat, which Chapman say is a common trait amongst Democrats, throughout the state, who are in office or are running outside of the “urban hubs.” In his campaign, Lamb ran against Trump’s tax bill that passed Congress in December; he criticized the Republican-led efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he campaigned on reforming student loans and protecting workers’ unions. However, Lamb also is in favor of Trump’s latest steel and aluminum tariffs, “which is not surprising given his geographic proximity to the steel industry of Pennsylvania,” Chapman said.

On many controversial issues, such as that of abortion, Chapman said that Lamb ran on “nuanced” stances. For example, although he is personally against abortion, Lamb would not endorse any new anti-abortion measures in the House of Representatives. “This is common for candidates to walk a fine line on divisive issues as it better positions themselves for a win,” said Chapman.

Lamb won the urban areas of Allegheny County, which is close to Pittsburgh, 58,655 to 43,289. However, his Republican opponent, Rick Saccone, won Westmoreland, Washington, and Greene Counties by 40,934 to 30,415, 26,162 to 22,723, and 2,801 to 2,020, respectively. “Therefore,” Chapman said, “more moderate Democrats would fare better in 2018 in many of PA’s districts, which is not outside the norm of the state itself.” Accordingly, Chapman suggests that if Lamb’s strategy be adopted by Democrats and Republicans in the midterms, they should must first take their constituency into consideration.

Additionally, Chapman noted that Lamb’s apparent victory demonstrates a shift within the 18th Congressional district from Trump’s election in 2016, especially since Trump won the district by 20 percentage points. “Nearly every precinct voted more Democratic in this election than it did in the 2016 presidential. I think this signals that the pendulum of politics is constant. Trump was and is a polarizing figure and may have lost some support because of it,” Chapman said.

“[Lamb’s victory] could also signal more enthusiasm from Democratic voters, which ultimately helped Lamb and will help Democrats in 2018,” Chapman added. However, he says, “The party of nearly every modern president loses seats in the midterm election during their first term.” Indeed, Ronald Regan lost 26 House seats, George H.W. Bush I lost 8, Bill Clinton lost 52, and Barack Obama lost 62.

“Connor Lamb was a strong candidate,” said Kenneth Mitchell, Chair of the Department of Political Science and Sociology and an associate professor of political science. In addition to Lamb’s campaign of moderate stances and pro-worker policies, Mitchell notes that the current political climate in Washington, D.C., also played a central role in his victory. In particular, the favorability of Democratic leadership. “Key is that he openly rejected [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi,” said Mitchell. “Few democrats under the age of 60 approve of her continuing as the Democrats’ House Leader [and] few Democrats outside of California support her.”

Mitchell explained that by Lamb openly disapproving Pelosi as House Democratic Leader, local voters in the Republican-leaning district kept an open mind to voting for a Democratic candidate. In accordance with Chapman, Mitchell suggests that Lamb’s victory is telling of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional district—and perhaps any other district in a swing state—especially because of Trump’s overwhelming victory in that district in 2016.

“Trump is in a tough spot,” Mitchell said. “He promised such districts ‘fantastic healthcare’ in 2016, but then supported boilerplate GOP ending healthcare for a large chunk of people in this district who voted Trump,” he added. Additionally, Mitchell also notes Trump’s other swift shifts in policies. For example, “[his] ‘no prior conditions’ rule that he promised to keep in 2016, he flipped on in 2017,” Mitchell said. “Coal country and ending this provision? Good luck…Coal country means unions, which means politically experienced people,” he added. “Trump promised everything: ‘fantastic healthcare,’ no cuts to Social Security or Medicare, [which are] big in this district, tax cuts for the middle class, ending the carried interest tax loop hole, [which he eventually kept], a balanced budget in four years yet is now set for record deficits, a Wall Mexico would pay for, tariffs on imports without provoking a trade war, etc.” Accordingly, perhaps previous Trump voters in Pennsylvania’s 18 Congressional district are disappointed in the administration’s failure to follow through on campaign promises.