The race in Pennsylvania's 18th district special election has been sufficiently localized.
- Pennsylvania voters are heading to the polls Tuesday for a highly watched special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District.
- The result could contain implications for President Donald Trump.
- But other factors have caused Democrat Conor Lamb to surge.
PITTSBURGH — Driving through Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District in recent weeks, something immediately stands out.
The yard signs. They are everywhere. And the majority of them are for Democrat Conor Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor vying to win the district's vacant congressional seat in a Tuesday special election.
As someone who grew up in the district, calling its northern-most point of Mt. Lebanon home for about 20 years, the lawns have never been littered with yard signs quite like this for anything less than a presidential election.
"People are begging me for yard signs," Lynn Heckman, a member of the Collier Democratic Committee, told me ahead of a rally Lamb held with former Vice President Joe Biden last week. "I have people who want them in their yard so bad. I've never seen anybody want yard signs like this. Ever."
There's another thing that's quite noticeable if you're in the district — the TV ads. Most of them fall into one of two categories:
- Ads on behalf of Republican Rick Saccone, a state legislator, lobbing attacks at Lamb for his record as a federal prosecutor or trying to attach him with national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (who Lamb said he would not support).
- Ads from Lamb that seek to dispel the content of the negative ads about him.
Voters at all levels — from the most committed to only the casual observer — are talking about the ads and how much they hate them.
Warren Bourgeois, the former longtime Republican mayor of Pleasant Hills, Pennsylvania told NBC News the ads are "terrible" as the woman seated next to him in a car could only shake her head.
"You can't turn on your internet without being interrupted every five minutes with an ad," he said.
Bourgeois, after voting for former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy — who resigned in disgrace last year following an abortion-related scandal — for years, as well as President Donald Trump, is voting for Lamb.
He's a snapshot of your typical voter in Pennsylvania's 18th district — older, white, and someone who could be swayed to vote for the "right" candidate on either side of the aisle. An onslaught of political ads isn't going to win his vote. What will is the appearance of independence from the powers that be.
In this case, that candidate is Lamb.
Lamb's surge isn't only because of Trump backlash
Everyone wants to make this election a referendum on Trump. And certainly, if Lamb can pull off an upset in a district that went for the president by 20 points in 2016, Republicans will be scrambling ahead of the midterms, knowing that no district is safe enough from what could be a Democratic wave.
But if you want to know why Lamb is surging in the polls in a district where Trump is fairly popular, listen to Bourgeois.
Saccone's entire campaign has been about bear-hugging Trump. Lamb, however, hasn't mentioned Trump at all. He hasn't sought to tie himself to national Democrats, and he's run as localized of a race as you can in 2018.
Lamb has expressed support for the Second Amendment, opposition to abortion personally (though he supports abortion rights) and said he supports a tax cut for the middle class (though he vehemently opposes the Republican tax bill.)
Even Trump, who visited the district on Saturday, appeared to echo what many Republicans have said privately. Lamb is a pretty good candidate — someone who is formidable in a district like this. The president said he doesn't "want to meet" Lamb because he "might like him, and then Rick is going to be very angry at me."
This is not to say Trump's hasn't played any role with voters in the area. Rich Nicola, a 58-year-old union carpenter, told me ahead of a rally for Lamb last week that Trump has made white men like himself look terrible.
"He makes us look like jagoffs," he said.
Saccone hasn't run the exciting campaign
Just hours after Trump's visit to Pennsylvania, it was reported that Trump privately calls Saccone a "weak" candidate. That appears to be a thought held by some of Trump's voters, too.
"I voted for Trump," union steelworker Edward Yorke, 63, told CNN, adding, however, that "Conor Lamb would give me his ear."
Those voting for Saccone seem to be doing so to further advance the Trump agenda, and less so because they've been overly impressed with the candidate they've been presented with.
"I like Lamb, but Trump’s agenda is what I need," Larry Butka, a lifelong Democrat and steelworker who voted for Trump, told NBC News.
Butka's mindset seems to be shared by the conservative-leaning voters I know best in the district — my parents. My father, a lifelong Republican, praised the GOP tax cuts for the immediate effect they saw personally while insisting lawmakers need to do something serious on gun control. He mentioned Lamb, expressing skepticism that he was up for the job, but he didn't go as far as saying he would vote for Saccone.
Trump's gambit on tariffs had little to no effect
With polling in the race tightening, Trump made a move with an eye toward the Tuesday election — his new tariffs on steel and aluminum. The idea was that such a move from Trump would go a long way with voters in an area that, at one time, made its name in both industries.
But it hasn't worked out as planned. For starters, both Saccone and Lamb have supported the tariffs. And polling showed that just 4% of voters said the decision influenced their vote in the race. Only a plurality of voters say the tariffs will help the region.
Though you'll see a ton of ink spilled about how the region is yearning for the return of the steel industry — which was decimated decades ago — many in the Pittsburgh area have accepted that the economy has moved on. The city itself has rebounded from problems that plagued the Rust Belt in the 1970s and 1980s much better than counterparts like Cleveland and Detroit. Instead of talking about a new steel mill, people are talking about Amazon's HQ2.
"It would be over the rainbow for us," Darrin Kelly, a Pittsburgh firefighter and president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council, told me. "We would be so happy if we got it. It is an economy-changing type of thing."
Saccone is quite different from his predecessor
There's yet another factor helping Lamb out that does not have to do directly with the president — Saccone isn't Murphy.
Talking to Democratic-leaning union voters at a Lamb rally, some made a point to mention they had no issue voting Murphy in for years, since he was "for the unions."
"He voted for them," union carpenter Jim Nicola, 56, told me at a Lamb rally. "Didn't like a lot of the other stuff that I was for, but I always thought I have to have money coming to me first. Murphy was with me on that. So I didn't mind voting for Murphy."
People are really excited about Lamb — and Republicans know it
The excitement around the Lamb campaign in most obvious in both candidates' fundraising numbers, where Lamb has crushed Saccone. Meanwhile, outside Republican groups have sought to make up the difference by injecting millions into the race to help prop him up.
Al Quaye, a Republican from the district, told me his family members have only reacted tepidly to the race. Meanwhile, in Mt. Lebanon, Lamb's hometown, and Upper St. Clair, another affluent Pittsburgh suburb in the district's northernmost region, Lamb's Republican friends "are going to change who they're voting for because of him."
"This is definitely worrisome for Republicans," Quaye said, noting that Saccone should have some success converting Democrats in the southern part of the district to his camp.
But in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Saccone's home, Marge Eiben, a 54-year-old Democrat, said ahead of a Lamb rally that "a lot of people" she knows "are paying attention now."
"There's a lot of people who are woke," she said. "And they need to be."