Memo: Victory in PA-18
March 14, 2018
From: Charlie Kelly, Executive Director, House Majority PAC
Jon Soltz, Chairman, VoteVets
Date: March 14, 2018
Re: Victory in PA-18
In a district that Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016 and continued to maintain a positive approval rating, against steep odds and a frantic flood of GOP spending, Democrat Conor Lamb achieved an historic win in PA-18. Despite the significant inherent difficulties facing Democrats in the district and Republicans spending millions early and heavily to attack and disqualify Lamb, he pulled-off a major upset that will reverberate in districts across the country heading into this November’s general election. The results in PA-18 are proof-positive that Democrats have real momentum this cycle – even in Trump-won districts. With strong Democratic candidates, like Lamb a Marine veteran, and campaigns focused on commonsense economic solutions, Democrats can win seats in Trump districts. House Majority PAC and VoteVets are proud to have partnered and played a part in supporting Lamb’s victory.
HMP’s and VoteVets’ Effort in PA-18
1. District Dynamics in PA-18
Until Lamb’s election, Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District had not been anywhere near competitive for national Democrats in recent years.Cook Political Report rated the seat as R+11. Before resigning last year, the previous Republican incumbent, Congressman Tim Murphy, did not even face a Democratic opponent in 2014 or 2016 and easily dispatched his opponent in 2012. President Obama barely broke 40% of the vote there in 2012 and Hilary Clinton only received 38% in 2016. As the Washington Post noted, this race “should have been a cakewalk” for Republicans, but it was anything but.
On October 14, 2017, 9 days after scandal-plagued Republican Congressman Tim Murphy announced that he would resign from the seat, Conor Lamb announced his campaign for PA-18 and went on to secure the Democratic nomination on November 19. As a Marine veteran and federal prosecutor with strong local roots, Lamb brought an impressive resume to the race along with a campaign focused on commonsense solutions. This would provide the basis for a stark contrast with Republican nominee, State Rep. Rick Saccone’s record as a self-serving Harrisburg politician. Lamb’s strengths as a candidate are all the more impressive in light of not only the recent historical dynamics of the district but even more so in light of the national GOP’s massive effort against him.
2. National Republicans’ Frantic Spending
While enthusiasm for Lamb’s candidacy allowed him to significantly outraise and directly outspend Saccone (outraising him by 5 to 1 just in the first seven weeks of 2018), Lamb was also up against a frantic flood of early and massive spending from GOP groups desperate to defend this deep-red district which began in early January and grew almost every week until Election Day. The RNC, NRCC, and numerous GOP outside groups including CLF, Americans for Prosperity, and others spent over $10.6 million struggling to hold onto this seat.
The narrative of the GOP’s frequently misleading attacks against Lamb grew exponentially mixed and frantic as the election grew closer. They ran the full gambit from trying to make the race a referendum on Nancy Pelosi, to attacking Lamb for his opposition to the GOP tax bill, to a ludicrous effort to portray the career prosecutor as weak on crime, and even to an attempt by CLF to depress Democratic turnout with targeted mailers intended to mislead those voters about Lamb’s positions on gun safety. Ultimately, the increasingly shifting and frenzied nature of the GOP’s attacks were indicative of their total failure to land a single compelling narrative that could secure them a victory against the Democratic candidate – even in a ruby-red district where Donald Trump had won handily and retained a mostly favorable approval rating throughout the special election.
3. HMP Polling
While a Democrat realistically and typically shouldn’t have had a chance in PA-18, all of the aforementioned factors as well as the continuously growing grassroots energy for Democrats nationally made it all the more important for progressive allies like HMP and VoteVets to closely monitor this race from early on and determine smart, significant ways to help Lamb’s candidacy as his momentum grew on the ground.
Less than two weeks into the year, HMP first polled the race, from January 9 to 10, and found Saccone leading Lamb 46% to 40% with 4% going to the Libertarian candidate and 10% undecided in an initial head-to-head. While the poll showed the race somewhat close, it also showed other factors remained generally unfavorable for Democrats in this district including an above-water approval rating for Donald Trump of 53%. HMP fielded a second more comprehensive poll from January 25 to January 28 and found similar results with Saccone leading Lamb 49% to 42%, the Libertarian candidate at 2%, and 7% undecided in an initial head-to-head. While the second poll’s message testing indicated Lamb had a possible path to victory, it still appeared fairly narrow.
Nevertheless, HMP continued to monitor the race – polling again from February 15 to 16 and a final time from February 21 to 22. These final two polls showed the race narrowing noticeably – with Saccone’s lead shrinking to two (47% to 45%) and subsequently just a single point (47% to 46%). Notably, the narrowed margin between the Democratic and Republican candidates in each of the final two polls occurred as Trump continued to maintain a majority-positive approval rating in PA-18 of 54% and 52% respectively.
4. HMP and VoteVets Plan of Action
HMP determined that given its status as the leading super PAC for House Democrats, the heavily Republican-favorable dynamics of the district, the unique circumstances of a special election, and the significant national attention the race was receiving, that getting involved unilaterally in the PA-18 special would risk energizing base-GOP voters and could orient the race in a way that could do more harm than good for Lamb’s campaign. However, with the race tightening and Lamb and his campaign clearly having accomplished the once seemingly near-impossible task of putting him well within striking distance of a win, HMP reached out to longtime ally VoteVets. The groups, which have worked together in several competitive Congressional races in past cycles, decided to partner again to take action and help ensure a Lamb victory.
House Majority PAC and VoteVets worked together to develop and produce an ad, titled “Look Closely” that would contrast Lamb’s record of service as a Marine veteran and former prosecutor with Saccone’s record of self-grift as a self-serving career Harrisburg politician.
VoteVets launched “Look Closely” in PA-18 with an approximately $350,000 investment including a broadcast and cable buy in the Pittsburgh media market that begin on March 5 and ran through Election Day.
Conor Lamb made the PA-18 special election into a real race despite a difficult district landscape for Democrats and millions in attack ads from Republicans. Lamb’s victory against the odds is an incredible indicator for Democrats across the country this November. With dozens of districts far more competitive for Democrats on the map this fall (including several in Pennsylvania which will be established under the state’s new fairer Congressional map), Republicans are and should be panicking. Over the past year, they’ve burnt tens of millions of dollars trying to hold onto some of the reddest districts in the country in just a handful of special elections, and that won’t be sustainable with the expansive House map facing them this fall. What’s clear from this most recent election is that the House map extends beyond the coastal suburbs Clinton carried. If Democrats can compete in a R+11 district where Trump won and remains mostly popular like PA-18, we can compete in Trump-won districts like KY-06 (R+9), MI-11 (R+4), ME-02 (R+2), IA-01 (D+1), and others across the country. Conor Lamb has demonstrated that a strong Democratic candidate with the right economic message can win even in places where the party has struggled in recent years. Last night’s election shows that the House battleground map is only growing bigger and increasingly unsustainable for Republicans.