WAYNESBURG, Pa. – Two days before the Tuesday special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, Conor Lamb, the first Democrat to run for Congress here since 2012, was all smiles.
Speaking before a crowd of coal miners in rural Greene County, Pennsylvaina, Lamb stressed that protecting the pensions of miners and steelworkers was “nonnegotiable.”
The crowd erupted into cheers.
That rally could herald a political change here in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The last time a Democrat ran in this district, which stretches from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the borders with Ohio and West Virginia, then-incumbent Republican Tim Murphy trounced his challenger by 28 percentage points.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won here by nearly 20 points.
At the beginning of this race, history looked set to repeat itself. In January, polling firm Gravis had Lamb’s Republican rival Rick Saccone up by 12 points.
However as the campaign wore on, those margins got slimmer and slimmer. Gravis’s latest poll, conducted between March 1 and 3, had Saccone up by 3 points, which is within the margin of error and makes it a statistical dead heat.
Saccone’s slip hasn’t been from lack of trying on the part of national Republicans. President Donald Trump traveled to the district to campaign for Saccone twice, calling Saccone a “great guy.” Vice President Mike Pence made an appearance, as did Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Donald Trump Jr. campaigned with Saccone the day before the election.
According to Dr. Joseph DiSarro, a professor of political science at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, that’s exactly the problem.
“Whenever you interject the president you run a risk,” he said. “The voter may think, ‘Am I voting for some sort of national referendum?”
DiSarro added that Lamb has run a very strong campaign, courting labor leaders and selling Pennsylvanians on a moderate, get-things-done message.
On the ground that’s translated into a huge fundraising advantage.
The Lamb campaign has trounced Saccone when it comes to individual fundraising. According to data released last month, Lamb raised over $3 million more than Saccone in individual contributions.
The campaign has been quick to add that small donors have played a huge part in that figure. According to the campaign, most of their funding has come from 80,000 small donors.
At the rally in Greene County, Pennsylvania State Rep. Pam Snyder chalked up Lamb’s popularity to his willingness to work across the aisle. “Come to the center. Compromise!”, she said. “I believe that’s the kind of elected official Conor Lamb will be.”
Daniel Miller, a retired coal miner who lives in the southwest corner of the district, agreed, saying it’s all about Lamb’s ability to get things done.
“You know this is America,” said Miller. “I voted for Trump. But I can also pick the good man that I think, because I think Conor will work with Republicans on ironing issues out.”
Miller also said that he’s been turned off by Saccone’s negative campaigning in the district. “I think it’s sleazy.”
However, Joseph DiSarro urged caution in predicting an upset.
“We don’t know how close it’s going to be until we go to the polls,” he said.