WASHINGTON – Pennsylvania’s new, court-ordered congressional district map has created a twist in the March 13 special election for the current 18th district – both candidates for the seat no longer live there. That means eight months after the winner comes to Washington, they will be running again – but potentially in a different district with a different mix of voters.
Vacant since October 2017 after Republican Tim Murphy resigned following an abortion scandal, the special election features Republican Rick Saccone facing off against Democrat Conor Lamb. Although the current 18th district went for Trump by over 17 points in 2016, Democrats have been targeting it as a potential pickup – and Saccone led Lamb by only 3 percentage points in a February 15 poll.
Per a ruling last month by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the special election is the last election in Pennsylvania held under the old map. Candidates will run under the new map starting with the May primaries.
“This creates an awkward situation – not only for the voters, but for the candidates,” David Wasserman, House Editor for the Cook Political Report, said. “It’s entirely possible that Lamb and Saccone will both be on the November ballot, just in separate districts.”
The new map replaces the 18th district with the redrawn and renumbered 14th district. That district is more favorable to Republicans – it has a Republican lean, according to Cook’s Partisan Voting Index, of +13.5 compared to the current 18th’s GOP lean of +10.9. Saccone now lives in the new 18th district, which replaces the current 14th and is centered on Pittsburgh. That new district is heavily Democratic, with a PVI of D+12.67.
Thus, Wasserman said Saccone will likely file to run in the new 14th district following the special election. The U.S. Constitution requires house members live in the state they represent, but not necessarily the district.
“Believe it or not, voters haven’t shown they care much about residency unless it’s an egregious case of carpet bagging,” Wasserman said. “In this case, I think voters will understand because districts have shifted under candidates’ feet, so just about everyone is confused.”
However, Saccone does face the risk of a primary challenger – especially if he loses in March.
“I think there are a few Republicans who are waiting in the wings to see what happens,” Wasserman said. “And then potentially circulating petitions to run between the March 13th special and the March 20th filing deadline.”
In an emailed statement, Saccone expressed his displeasure with the new map. He did not say whether he plans to run in the new 14th district come November, but that he’s confident about his chances in any district.
“I’ve fought my entire life for Western Pennsylvania,” the statement said. “I’m going to run and win in whatever district I compete in because it’s not about the lines that are drawn, but about the values I represent.”
Lamb faces a different set of options in November, Wasserman said. The new 14th district is heavily Republican, but Lamb’s residence – Pennsylvania’s new 17th district – is much less so.
“If Lamb were to win the special election, it’s possible the new 14th district would be unwinnable for a Democrat because it carves out all of Allegheny county,” Wasserman said. “The logical move for him would be to run in the 17th district, perhaps against Republican incumbent Keith Rothfus, and he’d actually have a better chance of holding his seat in that district than he would running in either the new 14th or the current 18th.”
Lamb did not say which district he plans to run in this November.
“I’m concentrating on the election on March 13 and protecting the people of the 18th District from extreme budget cuts,” Lamb said in an emailed statement. “I am running for this seat now and I will be running later no matter where they draw the lines.”
The new statewide redistricting map came after a case brought by the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters. It argued that the 2011 congressional map was so gerrymandered in favor of Republicans that it violated the state constitution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed in a 4-3 decision, striking down the old map on January 22 and ordering the Republican controlled state legislature to submit a new proposal for approval by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf by February 9. Wolf rejected the proposed map on February 13, and the court released their own map drawn by Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily on February 19.
Pennsylvania Republicans have decried the court-ordered map as partisan and asked the Supreme Court to hear the case – but Justice Samuel Alito, who hears emergency appeals from the state, rejected the request. After the release of the new map, Pennsylvania Republicans announced plans to sue to stop it from taking effect. However, that approach is unlikely to succeed, Wasserman said, since the state GOP has run out of venues. In order to win, he added, “The Supreme Court would essentially have to tell Pennsylvania that its interpretation of its own state constitution is in error.”