On March 13, a special election will be held in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, with Republican Rick Saccone, Democrat Conor Lamb, and Libertarian candidate Drew Miller vying to replace disgraced former US Rep. Tim Murphy. It is an especially convoluted special election since the winner will need to also run two months later in the May 15 primary to be nominated by his party – and then again in the November general election when the seat’s regular term expires.
But three elections across some eight months might be one of the more unexceptional aspects of this contest.
Earlier this month, we asked whether Republicans needed to worry about the outcome of this election. Trump won this district by 20 points in 2016 and Murphy regularly prevailed with 60 percent of the vote when he had an opponent. A loss in such a historically red district would loom ominously large for the GOP going into an uncertain midterm election.
That particular question has now been answered. Republicans are worried – very worried – and they are assembling an enormous arsenal of political resources committed to keeping the seat safely Republican.
Even a narrow victory will spare the GOP the ignominy of losing the seat, but Republicans are really aiming for an impressive margin of victory, enough to belie the dire predictions of the party facing a “wave” rejection by the voters in November’s upcoming mid-term elections.
A win in the 18th for the GOP isn’t enough. To stave off the panic of a mid-term debacle, Republicans want a big win – and they are doing everything possible to get it.
President Trump has already visited the district once and indicated he will return before Election Day. Vice President Pence plans at least one trip this month while other high-profile Republican surrogates will appear.
Meanwhile, financial resources are pouring in. The Congressional Leadership Fund, Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC, is staffing a massive “get-out-the-vote” effort aimed at contacting a quarter-million homes. CLF has already set up two campaign offices in the district. Separately, the Republican National Committee is planning its own voter outreach campaign.
Adding to these plans, Ending Spending, a so-called “dark money” PAC, has pledged a million-dollar media buy, while outside “independent” groups like the 45 Committee are also active, the latter expecting to spend $500,000 on voter communications.
And this is only the early money. Republicans will spend whatever they think it will take to win PA-18.
But if this one ends up being a gunfight, both sides are going to need a gun. And right now it isn’t clear Democrats are ready to answer the Republican largess with some of their own. Superior political resources, including cash, don’t guarantee winning – but a lack of such resources guarantees defeat.
Thus far, Democratic sources have given little indication they can or will match Republican resources. One major Democratic PAC plans to be active, but other national groups have been mostly uninvolved.
Certainly, Democrats have some reason to be cautious about committing resources. They did not win the special congressional elections held last year, even though they performed much better than expected so far in the Trump era – excluding the notorious Alabama Senate special election. Moreover, neither candidate has moved the needle very much with their personal financing efforts, leaving outside groups to primarily finance the campaign.
Then, too, Democrats do enjoy some significant advantages from the prevailing mood that is clearly trending toward them. Just this month, they won a surprising state Senate upset in Wisconsin by 10 points in a district Trump had won in 2016 by 17 points. Indeed, some political analysts are even questioning whether it is a smart tactic to bring President Trump in to campaign since his popularity has dropped precipitously since the 2016 presidential election.
Nevertheless, Democrats are climbing a steep hill trying to win in this heretofore solidly Republican and enthusiastically Trump district. To win, they need the right candidate with the right message – and they probably have that in Lamb.
What they appear not to have are the same resources – the money and manpower - Republicans are committing to the race. Without them, it may still be a close race, but one that Republicans likely to win. Controversial businessman/lobbyist Jack Abramoff famously remarked, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” winning, but a lack of such resources guarantees defeat.
In the PA-18 special election, it should be: “You can’t beat nobody with nothing.”
Republicans seem to understand that. It is not clear that Democrats do.
G. Terry Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael L. Young is a speaker, pollster, author, and was Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org