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Poll shows Lamb holds slight lead over Saccone a week before special election

| Monday, March 5, 2018, 12:24 p.m.
Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, are running for Congress in a March 13 special election.
Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, are running for Congress in a March 13 special election.

Momentum appears to have shifted in favor of Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election race to represent a Western Pennsylvania congressional district that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and elected former GOP Congressman Tim Murphy in the past eight elections, according to recent polling.

A poll released Monday by Boston's Emerson College shows Lamb, 33, of Mt. Lebanon, with a 3 percentage-point lead over Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, 60, of Elizabeth Township, in the March 13 special election race to replace Murphy, who resigned in October amid an extramarital scandal.

The lead is within the poll's 4.8 percentage-point confidence interval, which is similar to a margin of error, and 7 percent of voters remain undecided. But it's the first poll to put Lamb ahead in a district Trump won by 19 percentage points in 2016 and where Saccone was up two months ago by 12 percentage points.

"It's taken a turn no one would have expected," G. Terry Madonna, a Franklin & Marshall College pollster and political scientist, said of the race.

Madonna credited Lamb's performance to a grassroots campaign in which the candidate rejected House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and worked to avoid alienating Trump voters while taking moderate positions on social issues. He said Lamb's moderate positions on abortion and gun control helped, and that the campaign could be a template for other Democrats running in Republican areas around the country.

Christopher Borick, political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, said he couldn't have predicted a Democrat would be polling this well in the district with a week to go until the election.

"I thought the Dems picked the best candidate they could, but it was still a long shot," Borick said. "If you told me a week out or so that it seemed like it's a really tight race, I would be surprised. But the last few months, since November, we've seen Democrats overperform time after time in races across the country. Right now, the indications are that Lamb is following that trend."

Evan as Democratic candidates did better than expected in elections in Alabama and Virginia during the special election campaign, Lamb rejected framing the election as a referendum on Trump.

"What's fascinating is how Lamb has stayed away from that," Madonna said. "He wants the Trump voters; he wants to get the Democratic voters back home."

The Emerson poll showed 48 percent of likely voters supported Lamb while 45 percent backed Saccone. Pollsters surveyed 474 likely voters in the district that includes Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Greene counties from March 1-3.

The Emerson results follow two February polls that showed Saccone with a slight edge — Gravis showed Saccone with a 6 percentage-point lead in a poll with a margin of error of 4.2 points; while Monmouth University had him leading by 3 points in a poll with a margin of 5.5 points. Gravis had Saccone leading by 12 percentage points, with a margin of 4.3 points, in a January poll.

Since the race started, the Cook Political Report has twice reclassified it in the publication's election forecasts, moving it from "likely Republican" to "leans Republican" to — last week — "Republican toss up."

Lamb had raised about $3.8 million in the race as of the latest financial filing deadline, according to Center for Responsive Politics data, while Saccone had raised about $900,000.

Madonna said the donations to Lamb, which have come in mostly small increments, help bolster the idea that a grassroots campaign can be effective.

Patrick McCann, a spokesman for the Saccone campaign, said the campaign is unfazed by the polling and fundraising numbers.

"It just seems like movement based on the national attention being paid to the race," McCann said. "We always knew that this was going to be close, so that's not something I really concern myself with."

He said Saccone, who has benefited from millions in outside spending on advertising to support him, has enough money to win the race.

"Rick's a guy who likes to run like he's 10 points behind … he's out talking to voters each and every day in different capacities, just like any other candidate," he said.

McCann said he expects a boost of enthusiasm from a planned visit to the region by Trump on Saturday. Trump is scheduled to appear for a campaign rally at 7 p.m. Saturday at Atlantic Aviation at Pittsburgh International Airport.

"Voters here still very much like the president, like the agenda. Lots of people are really excited for his visit," he said.

He said the campaign is promoting Saccone's experience as a legislator, a college professor, and a former Air Force Office of Special Investigations officer.

"The message is the same as it has been all along. Rick is a man with a record as opposed to Conor, who is just rhetoric," he said.

The Lamb campaign did not respond to an interview request Monday.

The campaign has scheduled a public rally with former Vice President Joe Biden at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Yorktown Hall in Moon.

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

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