MT. LEBANON, Pa. — Republicans scrambled Wednesday to explain what happened in Pennsylvania, as a Democrat stood on the verge of a monumental win in a U.S. House special election that became a test of President Trump’s political clout.
While the race was still too close to call, Democrats were declaring victory as their candidate, Conor Lamb, clung to a narrow lead over Republican Rick Saccone in a district the president won by almost 20 points.
House Republican leaders described the outcome as a “wake-up call” for the party as it moves closer to the November midterms, echoing language GOP officials have used after other recent special election defeats. Officials also held out the possibility of a recount in the tight contest.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to reassure his party that it would be difficult for Democrats to replicate their success in Pennsylvania across the country.
“This is something that you are not going to see repeated,” Ryan predicted.
Earlier, Republican strategists involved in the race offered at times contradictory accounts of what happened in Pennsylvania.
The head of the House GOP campaign arm, Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio), briefed Republican members in a closed-door meeting, encouraging them to define themselves and their opponents more effectively than Saccone did.
“This is a wake-up call. If you’re getting outraised, this is a wake-up call. Prepare to bear down,” Stivers said, according to a Republican present for his remarks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting.
But the Republican strategy, led by conservative groups like Ending Spending and Congressional Leadership Fund, was to define Lamb early with millions in spending, starting in January, when Democratic groups were giving Lamb almost no air cover.
“We spent an awful lot of money,” said one Republican strategist involved in the race, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s difficult to spin this one.”
Even as Lamb outraised Saccone, Republican campaign committees and super PACs spent $10.7 million to help Saccone, more than five times as much as their Democratic rivals, according to Federal Election Commission records filed Monday night.
Corry Bliss, the executive director of CLF, which paid for door knockers starting in the first week of January, put the blame squarely on Saccone’s shoulders.
Bliss called Saccone, a four-term state legislator with a long military and academic résumé, “a joke.”
“We need to stop nominating joke candidates,” he said. Bliss said he wasn’t planning any strategic changes, but “everyone has to do better.”
Officials are tallying up the final absentee and provisional ballots, but with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Lamb held a 641-vote lead, with 49.8 percent of votes cast to Saccone’s 49.6 percent, according to the Associated Press. The AP said the race was too close to project a winner. A recount is possible if the candidates are separated by 0.5 percentage points or less.
“We are waiting for provisional ballots to be counted. We are not ruling out a recount,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. A person familiar with the process said party officials were looking at potential irregularities and legal action they could take.
While the number of outstanding absentee ballots in the Pennsylvania district is larger than the gap between Lamb and Saccone, Democrats ended election night confident that Saccone would not win them by a large enough margin to pull ahead. The NRCC said it was confident of a Saccone victory “after every legal vote is counted.”
Lamb said in a televised interview Wednesday that voters delivered a clear message — they wanted leaders in Washington to work together to help them. He reiterated his desire to replace Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) with a new House Democratic leader and was not hostile toward Trump or his supporters.
“I think we need to sweep some new people in there,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” speaking of House leaders in both parties.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, issued a statement saying, “Lamb’s win proves that Pennsylvanians want leaders who put the lives of people ahead of party politics.”
Republicans questioned whether other candidates could replicate Lamb’s success since he didn’t face a primary that could have pulled him to the left. But it remained to be seen whether the after-the-fact explanations would soothe worries among Republicans, who have been anxious about the midterms for months amid signs that enthusiasm is high among Democrats.
Special election wins by Democrats on conservative terrain in Alabama and Wisconsin and a strong performance by the party in Virginia’s contests last fall have alarmed GOP strategists.
“I don’t blame the candidate,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “Look, it’s gonna be a challenging election. But the race is going to be fought mostly with incumbents who’ve proven they can run in bad years.”
In Pennsylvania, shortly before midnight, Saccone told his supporters that “it’s not over yet.”
A little more than an hour later, Lamb took the stage at his party in Canonsburg to declare victory.
“Well, it took a little longer than we thought, but we did it,” said Lamb. “You did it! You did it!”
Lamb, 33, had waged an energetic campaign for a seat that opened up after the Republican incumbent was felled by scandal.The district itself will disappear this year, thanks to a court decision that struck down a Republican-drawn map.
Led by the White House, Republicans had elevated the race to a high-stakes referendum on the president and the GOP. Trump made two appearances with Saccone, including a Saturday-night rally in the district, and his son Donald Trump Jr. stumped with Saccone on Monday. The president repeatedly linked his brand to Saccone.
“The Economy is raging, at an all time high, and is set to get even better,” the president tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!”
By mid-morning Wednesday, Trump and the White House had not made any public comments on the election.
Thanks to the court’s scrambling of the congressional map, both Lamb and Saccone may well become candidates in new districts for the November midterm election before a winner is declared in this 18th Congressional District race.
The district, a stretch of suburbs and small towns that was drawn to elect a Republican, was not the sort of place that Democrats had been expected to make competitive this year. Lamb’s coalition pulled together suburban liberals, wayward Republicans and traditional Democrats who had drifted from the party on cultural issues.
The tight race added to Republican woes on a day that began with the surprise firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a string of related dismissals. Republicans who hoped to fight the Pennsylvania race on the growing economy, and on the president’s new tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, found the White House frequently alienating some of the voters they needed.
As voters made their decisions Tuesday, Trump loomed large in the minds of many.
Amelia Fletcher, a registered independent from Moon Township, 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.
Several voters who said they were Republicans cast their ballots for Lamb — and against the president.
After casting her vote in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, dental hygienist Janet Dellana said she had been outraged to see Trump call for arming teachers instead of limiting access to semiautomatic weapons after the deadly school shooting in Florida.
“He flip-flops on everything, but in the end, he caters to the extreme right,” said Dellana, 64. “I am a registered Republican, but as this party continues to cater to the extreme right, they push me left.”
Lamb blunted the impact of the GOP attacks he faced, most notably by saying in early January that he would not support Pelosi for speaker. His highest-profile surrogate, former vice president Joe Biden, has enjoyed high approval ratings from all voters since passing on a 2016 presidential bid.
Viebeck and Sullivan reported from Washington. Scott Farwell and Kellie Gormly contributed from Pennsylvania. Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner in Washington contributed.