1 of 2 | Democrat Conor Lamb, arriving to vote Tuesday morning, leads Republican Rick Saccone by 627 votes -- a margin of 0.3 percentage points. Lamb declared victory early Wednesday morning, but Saccone has refused to concede. Photo by Eric Miller/MNS/UPI
CANONSBURG, Pa., March 15 (UPI) -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb's narrow election win is "a tremendous victory" -- and said his promise that he won't vote for her as party leader in the lower chamber doesn't worry her.
Pelosi visited Canonsburg, where Lamb enjoyed a key victory over Republican Rick Saccone.
"I don't think he ran against me the entire time. I think he ran on his positive agenda," she said. "He won. If we hadn't won, you might have a question, but we won."
Throughout the campaign for the western Pennsylvania district that President Donald Trump won by 19 points in 2016, Lamb pledged not to vote for Pelosi as House speaker if the Democrats take control of the chamber in November.
"It's a district that not only Trump carried it big, Romney carried it big by 15 points. This is a Republican district," Pelosi said. "[Lamb is] superb, we look forward to welcoming him here."
After all precincts and absentee ballots were counted, Lamb held a slim lead of 627 votes over Saccone in the special election for Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, which hadn't had a Democratic representative in more than 20 years.
Because the margin is so narrow -- 0.3 percent -- election officials are waiting to count overseas, military and provisional ballots, which have until March 20 to arrive. Nonetheless, Lamb declared victory early Wednesday, saying, "Mission accepted." Saccone has refused to concede.
Saccone campaign spokesman Patrick McCann said the GOP candidate will meet with lawyers to discuss options, including a potential recount or other legal challenges.
"This was gonna be a nail biter, always," McCann said.
Matt Gorman, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Commission, said the NRCC agreed that the race is too close to call.
"We're ready to ensure that every legal vote is counted," Gorman said in a statement. "Once they are, we're confident Rick Saccone will be the newest Republican member of Congress."
House Speaker Paul Ryan said it is "too soon to say what's going to happen," and noted both Saccone and Lamb ran as conservatives.
"Both of these candidates, the Republican and the Democrat, ran as conservatives -- ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservatives," Ryan said. "This is something that you're not going to see repeated because they didn't have a primary. They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative."
However, the Saccone campaign and Republican political groups spent millions on ads casting Lamb as a puppet of Pelosi, with at least two branding him as a "sheep" in Pelosi's "flock."
Pennsylvania law says all statewide races with a margin of less than 0.5 percent automatically get a recount -- but since the 18th district election was not a statewide race, a recount is not guaranteed. Voters can request one -- but the process is complicated. A recount requires three voters to file a petition in each precinct alleging fraud or error in the vote, and each petition must also be accompanied by a $50 deposit.
Allegheny County Elections Division Director Mark Wolosik said in an emailed statement they "have not received notice of legal action being taken by any party or campaign at this time."
Wolosik also said that the county is aware of two claims raised by the Republican party -- allegations that GOP attorneys were kicked out as absentee ballots were counted and that some voting machines experienced problems. Wolosik said both were investigated and found to be baseless.
After Saccone underwhelmed with fundraising, The National Republican Congressional Committee and other conservative political groups poured millions of dollars into the race as Saccone's slim lead narrowed to a dead heat. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in the district and Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Kellyanne Conway also visited. Meanwhile, Democrats kept a distance, generally believing their involvement could hurt Lamb's chances among moderate Republicans.
In the race, Lamb cast himself as a moderate Democrat who is independent from the national party. He's pro-gun and is personally opposed to abortion but supports its current legal status. He also supports several of Trump's policy positions, including the recent steel tariffs. National Democratic committees took a somewhat hands-off approach, thinking the Washington influence could hurt Lamb. Lamb's only high-profile campaign visit came from former Vice President Joe Biden, who is popular among blue collar Democrats.
Sitting in the western portion of the state, Pennsylvania's 18th district stretches from Pittsburgh suburbs in Allegheny and Washington counties to the more rural portions of Westmoreland and Greene counties. Lamb built a diverse coalition of voters, ranging from lifelong Democrats and labor union members to voters who backed Trump in 2016 but regretted their choice or were turned off by Saccone's negative political advertising and close association to the president.
Dan Hackett, a resident of Lamb's hometown of Mt. Lebanon, is one such voter.
"Unfortunately, the worst voting mistake of my life was voting for Trump," the 61-year-old CPA said. "I haven't changed parties, but [Trump] is a motivator - I have serious buyer's remorse when it comes to voting for him and I think a lot of people around the country do. I really thought the office would change him, but he's done nothing but disrespect, denigrate the office at every opportunity he gets."
Local labor unions also rallied behind Lamb over Republican Rick Saccone. That's a change from previous elections in which unions supported Republican Rep. Tim Murphy due to his strong pro-labor stances. In contrast, Saccone supports right-to-work legislation, which organized labor sees as a way to undermine unions. Murphy, a famously pro-life legislator, triggered the special election by resigning in October over a scandal where he asked his mistress to have an abortion.
Once he heads to Congress, Lamb will be back out on the campaign trail within months - but likely in a different district. The special election was the last election held under Pennsylvania's old congressional map, struck down by the state Supreme Court as a partisan gerrymander after a suit from the League of Women Voters. When the Republican-controlled state legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf could not agree on a replacement, the court drew its own. The new map offers several pickup opportunities for Democrats, who currently hold five of the state's 18 house seats.
If the map stands despite ongoing legal challenges from Pennsylvania Republicans, both Lamb and Saccone are cut out of the current 18th district's replacement - the new 14th district. Lamb, whose hometown is in the new 17th district, is expected to challenge incumbent Republican Keith Rothfus for the seat. The new district has a Cook Partisan Voting Index of only R+3 - a much easier battle than the Republican lean of +10.9 in the current 18th district.
Saccone now lives in the new 18th district, which centers on Pittsburgh and is heavily Democratic. He's expected to run in the new 14th district, which is more conservative than the current 18th.
The filing deadline for the May primaries is March 20.