Democrat Conor Lamb proclaimed victory early Wednesday morning in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District seat, a race he was running against the Trump-backed Republican, Rick Saccone, in a part of the state that had been reliably right-leaning.
‘It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it!’ Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, said as he came onstage of his Canonsburg, Pennsylvania election night headquarters a little after 12:30 a.m.
The Associated Press still considered the race too close to call, but MSNBC declared Lamb the winner early on Wednesday. The Democrat appeared to be ahead by 641 votes, with some absentee ballots yet to be tabulated.
Lamb said Wednesday morning on CNN’s ‘New Day’ program that he expects to officially become a congressman-elect soon.
‘This is a local race run by local people. We have people all over the district following this, and they’ve seen a lot of elections here. And we feel confident about how it’s going to turn out,’ he said.
‘This is my home. You call it a “red” district. I just call it western Pennsylvania,’ he said.
CNN reported that 1,398 absentee ballots from two counties still had to be counted. But the results from most of those, in Washington County, were announced in the middle of the night and added 62 votes to Lamb’s margin.
Pennsylvania law doesn’t offer an automatic recount for congressional races, but the losing candidate can request one by getting three voters from each precinct to sign a petition.
Lamb said Wednesday on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ that he wants to see Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives dump their leadership after he gets to Washington.
‘I’d like to see someone besides Nancy Pelosi run, and that’s who I would support,’ he said. ‘But I definitely would like to see a different leader other than Paul Ryan on the other side.’
‘It’s nothing personal,’ Lamb added.
Speaking late Tuesday night, Saccone, a state House representative, said he wasn’t throwing in the towel.
‘We’re going to fight all the way to the end. You know I never give up. You know my first race went into the night and we won that. And my second race. So we’re kind of used to that,’ Saccone told supporters, coming down to greet his crowd in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a little after 11:30 p.m.
‘Don’t give up. We’re gonna keep it up! We’re gonna win! God bless you all,’ the Republican candidate said.
He did not call Lamb to concede the election.
Even if Lamb had narrowly lost the bellwether race, Democrats would consider it a win – and that it suggested that President Trump’s brand is suffering in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, where Democrats are hungry to take back the House of Representatives. Republicans claimed control of the chamber two years into Barack Obama’s presidency.
Even before Lamb took the stage at his victory party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had called their guy a winner.
‘I want to congratulate Conor Lamb and his team of grassroots supporters on an incredible victory,’ said Ben Ray Lujan, the DCCC’s chairman.
Lamb thanked his supporters too, who were holding signs that said ‘Lambslide’ – which the race wasn’t – and ‘Conor,’ on cardboard cut-outs of white lambs.
The 33-year-old candidate talked about what he thought got his campaign over, or almost over, the line, including talking to voters about programs like Social Security and Medicare.
‘They are America’s way of saying we are all in this together,’ Lamb said.
Our issue in this campaign is common ground. We fought to find common ground and we found it. Almost everywhere. Democrats, Republicans, independents, each of us Americans,’ he said.
Noting how his job was to be a member of the House of Representatives, Lamb said he planned to look out for the interests of his constituents.
‘OK, I will, mission accepted,’ said Lamb, using familiar military parlance, having served his country in the Marine Corps.
In his brief speech, Lamb also spoke out against the current toxic climate and ‘dark money’ pouring into politics ‘distorting the truth and telling lies to our children.’
‘I’m proud that you helped me refuse corporate PAC money,’ he said.
He finished by talking about how he belonged to the party of his grandfather.
‘I’m a Pennsylvania Democrat, a proud Western Pennsylvania Democrat,’ he began.
His grandfather, Lamb said, had ‘believed in FDR.’
‘He taught us that people have the right to know that their government walks on their side of the street,’ he continued.
‘What that means is I’ll work on the problems that our people face, secure their jobs and pensions, protect their family and I’ll work with anyone to do that,’ he said, concluding his victory remarks.
Meanwhile, Republicans decided the best course of action was to just wait.
‘This race is too close to call and we’re ready to ensure that every legal vote is counted,’ said NRCC Communications Director Matt Gorman. ‘Once they are, we’re confident Rick Saccone will be the newest Republican member of Congress.’
‘The NRCC is proud of our efforts in this race to promote Rick’s message, motivate Republican voters, and hold Conor Lamb accountable,’ Gorman added.
In the morning, according to Saccone’s campaign, the candidate would be at home while his campaign team met with lawyers from the Republican National Committee and the NRCC.
‘No decision will be made until after the meeting,’ a campaign spokesman said, according to CNN.
House Speaker Ryan tried to change the narrative mid-morning Wednesday by suggesting that Lamb was a unique candidate and had won by running as a ‘conservative.’
‘I don’t know that there’s a big surprise,’ Ryan said. ‘I think the candidate that’s going to win in this race is the candidate that ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative, that’s the candidate that’s going to win this race.’
Ryan suggested that had the Democrats had a competitive primary they would have chosen someone more left-wing, which wouldn’t have fit the district as well as Lamb.
‘So this is something that you’re not going to see repeated because they didn’t have a primary,’ the House Speaker said.
In the days leading up to the election it looked like Saccone could lose, with Lamb running six points ahead in the final poll.
The previous person to hold the seat, disgraced Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned over a sex scandal, won by 28 points in 2012. That was the last time the Democrats even bothered to field a candidate in the western Pennsylvania district.
Saccone, and national Republicans supporting him, went on the attack early against Lamb, running wall-to-wall television ads that literally featured bleating lambs and headshots of Nancy Pelosi as they tried to connect the Democrat with the leader of his party in the House, an unabashed liberal from California.
Saccone also fully embraced the president, calling himself ‘Trump before Trump was Trump.’
He campaigned with Trump in the district over the weekend, and made appearances with Donald Trump Jr. on Monday.
But the president smelled potential defeat, saying during a Saturday night rally that ‘the world is watching. I hate to put this pressure on you Rick, they’re all watching … Look at all those red hats’
While Saccone had help from the White House, Lamb – who touted his bipartisan credentials and said he was not pro-Pelosi – got an assist from former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Joe Kennedy III, the Massachusetts Democrat who was enlisted this year to rebut Trump’s State of the Union address.
Lamb said Wednesday that Trump’s intervention in the race wasn’t helpful to anyone.
‘There was a lot of foolishness in this election and a lot of really cartoonish campaigning,’ he said on CNN. ‘And I think by the time of the president’s visit last weekend, people were kind of tired of that entire approach.’
Earlier this month, Biden appeared at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, and told an enthusiastic crowd that 33-year-old Lamb, a Marine veteran, reminded him of his late son Beau, who had served as Delaware’s attorney general.
Biden also suggested the district was ripe for the Democrats’ taking. ‘The suburbs, the exurbs, the smaller towns – they got hit pretty hard,’ the ex-veep said.
The current map of District 18 includes all of those things. It’s a southwestern chunk of the state that horseshoes around the bottom of Pittsburgh, including both working class communities and ritzy suburbs like Mount Lebanon.
It stretches into rural areas as well, down to the south to the border of West Virginia, and east into Westmoreland County, where voters live in smaller towns like Mount Pleasant and Ligonier.
In 2016, the district went 20 points for Trump when he faced Hillary Clinton, a far more liberal contender than the pro-gun and largely anti-abortion Conor Lamb.
There are technically more registered Democratic voters than Republicans in the 18th District, and also a cultural willingness to cross party lines.
Some voters told DailyMail.com that while they liked Trump, they supported the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders – who they considered a similar political outsider –when the Vermont independent ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
That’s one reason why the district had suddenly become a toss-up. Another is labor union discontent with Saccone’s legislative history.
‘He’s co-sponsored or voted for every single anti-labor bill that has come up during his time in Harrisburg,’ Steve Mazza, an official with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, told NBC News.
Saccone, who took national heat from Republicans for weak fundraising numbers, also ended the campaign on an angry note.
On Monday, during one of his last rallies as a candidate, Saccone claimed Democrats were ‘energized’ by ‘hate for our president.’
‘And I tell you, many of them have a hatred for our country,’ he said, castigating his fellow Pennsylvanians.
‘I’ll tell you some more my wife and I saw it again today. They have a hatred for God.’
Whichever candidate wins, he won’t be in the seat for long.
Pennsylvania’s new redistricting scheme chops up the district, which stretches over four counties, meaning new candidates will have to compete for the seat in November.