MT. LEBANON, Pa. — The polls have closed and ballot counting has begun in a hotly contested U.S. House seat special election that President Trump and the rest of Washington are watching closely as a bellwether for the midterm elections.
Republican Rick Saccone sought to hold off a stronger-than-expected challenge from Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. Lamb took a substantial lead early as the precinct results rolled in. Saccone closed the gap as the more rural areas reported: With 95 percent of the precincts reporting, Lamb’s lead was less than 1,000 votes, putting the candidates in a virtual tie.
The race has received a steady stream of national media attention because of its implications for the president and congressional Republicans as they seek to maintain their majorities in November. To fend off a Democratic upset, Republicans spent more than $10 million in the race, and Saccone received an 11th-hour campaign visit by Trump.
The president won the district by nearly 20 points in 2016, but Lamb’s strength in the race underscored the political challenges facing the GOP: The party controlling the White House typically loses seats in the midterms, and Trump’s unpopularity does not help.
Republicans are openly fretting that Lamb, a former federal prosecutor who received considerable support from labor unions, might win the southwest Pennsylvania seat. Final polls found him leading Saccone, who by Tuesday was portraying himself as the underdog in the race.
Polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
As voters made their decisions Tuesday, Trump loomed large in the minds of many.
Amelia Fletcher, a registered independent from Moon Township, Pa., cast her first-ever ballot for Saccone because she likes Trump’s agenda and believes he will support it.
“I really don’t appreciate how he talks, but I like what he’s doing now to help us out,” the 18-year-old high school senior said of Trump.
In Mt. Lebanon, Dave Banyan, 65, said that he had made up his mind on the race “as soon as President Trump was President Trump.” He said he did not want Democrats to get one vote closer to controlling the House of Representatives.
“I don’t want America to go back to the way it was” under President Barack Obama, said Banyan, a retired transportation worker. “Obamacare killed me. Dreamers — keep dreamin’, you know?”
However, several voters who said they were Republicans cast their ballots for Lamb — and against Trump.
Janet Dellana, 64, said that Lamb had impressed her as a candidate, but that “national politics” had already been moving her toward the Democrats.
In the wake of school shootings across the country, Dellana said she had been outraged to see Trump call for arming teachers instead of limiting access to semiautomatic weapons.
“He flip-flops on everything, but in the end, he caters to the extreme right,” said the dental hygienist. “I am a registered Republican, but as this party continues to cater to the extreme right, they push me left.”
Mindy Barron, a 31-year-old ICU nurse from Greensburg, Pa., called Lamb “not a real hard-line Democrat.” A Republican, she supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and said her choice to support another Democrat on Tuesday reflected dissatisfaction with Trump.
Lamb suits the district “really well,” she said, noting the area’s “strong red presence.”
Saccone, who national Republicans quietly blamed for the closeness of Tuesday’s contest, landed the GOP nomination in an upset after winning four statehouse terms with low-dollar, grass-roots campaigns.
In an effort to boost his chances, the White House has sent Vice President Pence and White House advisers Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump to the district. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced new funding for mine reclamation at a town just outside the district, with Saccone in attendance.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, spent $3.4 million on the race, much of it on a canvassers who knocked on 235,000 doors for Saccone. Their literature warned voters to “Stop Pelosi” and “Stop Hillary” by defeating Lamb.
The Republican spent the final hours of the campaign on Monday evening with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, rallying at a VFW hall in his home town of Elizabeth and warning fellow party members that “the left” was energized politically for all the wrong reasons.
“I’ve talked to so many of these [people] on the left, and they have a hatred for our president,” said Saccone. “I’ll tell you, many of them have a hatred for our country. … My wife and I saw it again today. They have a hatred for God.”
Lamb, voting shortly before 8 a.m. at his home precinct in Mt. Lebanon, said he had “no idea” what Saccone meant and rebuffed claims the election was a referendum on the White House.
“People are voting for either me or Rick Saccone,” he said. “I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with the president.” Asked about the president’s new tariffs on steel and aluminum, Lamb emphasized that both he and Saccone had supported them.
The special election followed the resignation of former Republican congressman Tim Murphy after a scandal. Murphy did not draw a Democratic challenger during the last two elections.
Saccone voted Tuesday morning at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in McKeesport, Pa. Surrounded by reporters and television crews, he exited the polling place while on a video call with his son, an Air Force officer stationed in South Korea, declining to answer many questions.
“Hey, son! Look at this — look at this mob!” Saccone said, turning his phone’s camera toward the crowd.
Robert Blose, a 68-year-old independent from Moon Township, cast his ballot for Saccone later in the day. The retired Marine said he did a lot of research on the two candidates and found himself questioning the abilities and policy views of Lamb, 33.
“I do think that he’s too inexperienced,” Blose said of the Democrat.
Another political independent, 78-year-old Eugene Galiotto, supported Trump in 2016 and planned to vote for Saccone. But he said he changed his mind after seeing the bevy of negative political ads directed at Lamb in the race.
“It disgusted me,” said Galiotto, a retired travel agency owner from Elizabeth Township, Pa. “I felt like I had to come out.”
Lamb, a Marine veteran, ran as a protector of Social Security and Medicare who wanted “new leadership” to replace House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In the closing days, national Republicans argued that he had blurred the lines between the parties, gaining on Saccone only because he did not sound like a Democrat.
“He’s pro-gun, he’s pro-tariff, he’s pro-Trump, essentially,” Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel said in a Monday radio interview. “It’s going to be a tight, tight race when you have two people running basically for the same party.”
Republicans in Pennsylvania have run with a slightly different spin, emphasizing that registered Democrats slightly outnumber registered Republicans in the rural areas south and west of Pittsburgh.
Tim Lacey, a 69-year-old registered Democrat, said Saccone’s support for Trump overcame any loyalty to the Republican, his fellow church member and a former customer of his construction business.
“I know Rick Saccone,” said Lacey, who lives in Elizabeth Township. “He’s not a golfing buddy, but he’s a good man. But anyone who supports Trump isn’t for me.”
Regardless of who wins on Tuesday night, the boundaries of the 18th congressional district will change this year because of a court decision that struck down a Republican-drawn map.
The district had been trending toward the GOP for decades. Republican candidates for president carried the district by larger and larger margins starting in 2004, peeling traditional Democrats away from their party on issues such as abortion and gun rights.
In Waynesburg, a fading mining town about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, one registered Republican was still making his choice as he headed into his polling place.
“What are you supposed to do?” Gary Wilson, 56, asked rhetorically, a few minutes before casting his ballot. “One’s a career politician and the other one is looking to make a career out of politics.”
Wilson, a supervisor at one of the area’s remaining mines, ultimately voted for Saccone, but he only offered a squeamish endorsement of the president.
“He can’t keep his big mouth shut, he can’t stop tweeting, and he can’t stop saying the wrong things at the most inopportune times,” he said. “And now we’ve got this Stormy Daniels nonsense. It’s almost like we’re waiting for the next dumb thing he’s going to do.”
But “at least he’s doing something,” Wilson said after a pause. “It’s definitely not politics as usual.”
Viebeck reported from Washington. Scott Farwell and Kellie Gormly contributed from Pennsylvania.