CANONSBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – Republicans are scrambling to avoid a political embarrassment in a conservative district of Pennsylvania, where a pro-gun, pro-union Democrat could be about to win a congressional election in one of President Donald Trumpâ€™s white, working-class strongholds.
Democrat Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, is in a dead heat with Republican state Representative Rick Saccone in Tuesdayâ€™s special election for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that Republicans have held since 2003.
The race is seen as a referendum on Trump and a harbinger for Novemberâ€™s congressional elections, according to pollsters and party insiders who say the moderate Democrat could emerge as a model for Democratic candidates in other competitive House districts that Trump carried in 2016.
â€œThe Democrats have nominated the ideal candidate, because he fits the profile of the electorate. If theyâ€™d nominated a liberal who allowed the campaign to become nationalized, it would be over by now,â€� said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
â€œIf he wins, or even if he just comes close, he is a model for Democrats in competitive Trump districts nationally.â€�
Trump won the district, in southwest Pennsylvania, by nearly 20 points in 2016 and has endorsed Saccone.
â€œThe Economy is raging, at an all time high, and is set to get even better. Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!â€� the president tweeted on Tuesday.
Still, Lamb has fought to make the contest a local referendum and said he was focused on issues in his district even as he welcomed Democratic enthusiasm over the race.
U.S. congressional candidate and State Rep. Rick Saccone emerges from his polling place while video chatting with his son at the Osan Air Base in South Korea. Saccone cast his vote in Pennsylvania’s 18th U.S. Congressional district special election between Republican Saccone and Democratic candidate Conor Lamb at a polling place in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Alan Freed
â€œThis is a local race,â€� Lamb told reporters after voting at a church in his hometown of Mt. Lebanon shortly after sunrise on Tuesday. â€œI donâ€™t think it has anything to do with the president.â€�
Polls closed at 8 p.m.
Republican dominance has been so strong in the district that Democrats ran no candidates in the previous two U.S. House elections, even though state voter registration records show Democrats outnumbering Republicans.
But dynamics have changed in the district, which runs from wealthy suburbs south of Pittsburgh through hardscrabble steel and coal mining towns to farmlands along the West Virginia border.
Saccone, 60, a conservative who has described himself as â€œTrump before Trump was Trump,â€� led the race by more than 10 percentage points in January. The contest has since narrowed to a toss-up on a wave of Democratic voter enthusiasm for Lamb.
Republicans have also found it harder than expected to mount effective attacks on Lambâ€™s positions on abortion, guns and the national Democratic Party.
He has eschewed the national Democratic brand, saying he would not support House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
Lamb says he personally opposes abortion but accepts the Supreme Courtâ€™s 1973 Roe vs. Wade landmark decision allowing abortion as the law of the land. He favors enforcing existing gun laws and improving the current system of background checks over setting new gun restrictions.
Larry Gdovic, 61, a state government employee from Elizabeth Township, voted for Lamb. â€œHeâ€™s a young new guy with a lot of good fresh ideas. I donâ€™t believe heâ€™s a total Democrat,â€� Gdovic said.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Cooney