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After Alabama win, Democrats focus on flipping deep-red district in Western Pennsylvania

Wes Venteicher
| Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, 1:21 p.m.
Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, are competing in a special election to serve the remainder of former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy's term next year.
Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, are competing in a special election to serve the remainder of former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy's term next year.

HARRISBURG — Democrat Doug Jones' election to the U.S. Senate in the deep-red state of Alabama is fueling optimism among Democrats around the country about the party's election prospects, not least in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Conor Lamb is campaigning for the congressional seat formerly held by Republican Tim Murphy.

Lamb, 33, is running against State Rep. Rick Saccone, 59, in a deeply Republican district stretching from Westmoreland County to the state's western edge. A special election to replace Murphy, who resigned in October following a scandal surrounding an extra-marital affair, will be held March 13th.

"I think it gives voters in my district the confidence to know that we are listening," Lamb said Wednesday, a day after Jones' victory. "We're next on March 13th."

He said he was heartened that one of the first things Jones talked about after his victory was the importance of funding the Children's Health Insurance Program, which Congress hasn't voted to reauthorize. Lamb, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted opioid-related crimes, has said health care is one of his campaign priorities.

Neither Saccone nor his campaign manager returned phone calls Wednesday. Saccone did not speak with a reporter who asked a secretary in his Capitol office for an interview.

Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore by about 20,000 votes, or 1.5 percent, in a state where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by about 27 percentage points.

In the 18th Congressional District, where Lamb and Saccone are campaigning, Trump defeated Clinton by about 19 percentage points. Tim Murphy had won the district eight times in a row, and in the last two cycles had no Democratic challenger.

Democrats have performed better than expected in special elections around the country since Trump's election, said G. Terry Madonna, Franklin & Marshall College's Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs. Still, Madonna said, it would take a "revolution within the electorate" for a Democrat to win in the 18th district.

The Alabama special election was unique for many reasons that make it difficult to compare to the upcoming election in Pennsylvania, Madonna said, from allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore to appearances by celebrities and high-profile political figures supporting each candidate.

Jones benefited from a large turnout by black voters and Democrats in general. Pennsylvania's 18th District is 93 percent white. There are about 231,000 registered Democrats and about 207,000 registered Republicans, according to Secretary of State data. About 707,000 people live in the district, which is whiter and wealthier than average for the state.

"In that district, it's going to take Democrats staying home instead of flipping and voting for the Republican candidate," Madonna said.

The Jones campaign heavily outspent Moore's in Alabama, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.

Advertising through TV, social media and radio will be important for each candidate to establish name recognition in the district, Madonna said.

Lamb congratulated Jones shortly after the victory in Twitter and Facebook posts seeking donations for his campaign. Financial reports for the campaigns are not yet available.

Jones benefitted from running against a flawed candidate, according to the Cook Political Report, which said that in addition to the sexual misconduct claims, Moore held "extreme positions on issues ranging from homosexuality to the separation of church and state," which "turned off some Republican voters."

Saccone's support for legislation promoting Christian values has stirred some controversy. Saccone promoted bills that would have allowed, but not required, schools to display the national motto, "In God We Trust," and would have declared 2012 to be "The Year of the Bible."

According to the Cook Political Report, Jones ran a "solid and well-executed campaign that did everything it needed to do from sharp television ads to identifying their voters and getting them to the polls, which was especially important in a special election in which this was the only race on the ballot."

Lamb said he wasn't looking to replicate anything from the Jones campaign.

"It's not changing what I'm doing, which is trying to campaign in the streets and on the doorstep," he said.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or wventeicher@tribweb.com.

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