March 14, 2018

The special House election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district was, among other things, a test of political messaging going into the 2018 midterms. It did not go well for Republicans. Democrat Conor Lamb declared victory early Wednesday. Though he held a lead of just under 700 votes, NBC News projected him the winner.

Outside Republican groups dumped $10.7 million into the race to help Republican Rick Saccone, but the GOP groups "backed away from their signature tax-cut law in the final days" and weeks of the campaign, focusing their ads instead on "so-called sanctuary cities and attacking Democrat Conor Lamb's record as a prosecutor," Politico reports. "The strategy shift has been dramatic," Politico documents, explaining why it matters:

If the tax law isn't a reliable vote-winner, it means Republicans may have to find different midterm messaging to go along with a consistent wave of attacks linking Democratic candidates to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The Pennsylvania race will mark the second major contest of the cycle, following the Virginia governor's race, where Republicans abandoned a tax cut-focused message to hammer a Democrat over immigration and crime. [Politico]

President Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, and "there are 114 Republican-held House seats more competitive than Pennsylvania's 18th," NBC News reports.

"If this race is reflective of the messages from the two parties going into November, Republicans have trouble on their hands," says Chris Stirewalt at Fox News. "The conventional wisdom in Washington was that the key to midterm survival for Republicans is to focus on the booming national economy and the role of the GOP in making it that way," but "how do you tell people in the same breath that your policies are working, but that America is teetering on the brink of failure? If peace and prosperity aren't good enough to run on, what would be?" Peter Weber

March 14, 2018

Democrat Conor Lamb declared victory early Wednesday in a hard-fought special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, though he leads Republican Rick Saccone by just 597 votes, there are still absentee ballots to count, Saccone hasn't conceded, and major news organizations have not projected Lamb the victor yet. "It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it. You did it," Lamb told supporters shortly before 1 a.m. He especially thanked union workers. "We followed what I learned in the Marines — leave no one behind," Lamb said. "We went everywhere, we talked to everyone, we invited everyone in."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had already declared victory for Lamb, confident that Saccone couldn't get enough absentee votes to push him over the top, but the National Republican Congressional Committee insisted that Saccone would win "after every legal vote is counted." The seat was vacated by Tim Murphy (R), who resigned in disgrace in December. President Trump won the district by 20 points. Peter Weber

March 14, 2018

Democrats declared victory in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district Tuesday night while Republicans and The Associated Press have deemed the special House race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone too close to call. With all precincts reporting, Lamb holds a 579-vote lead over Saccone, or 49.9 percent to 49.6 percent. But there are still absentee ballots to count. It's complicated, but MSNBC's pleasantly frenetic Steve Kornacki has the big touch screen, a black pen, and an evident love for electoral math. If you want to know the state of the race, he is happy to explain.

"I'm happy to talk as much as we can," Kornacki said, getting a laugh from Brian Williams and other people in the studio, but there's not much more "numerical information" to get in the next few hours.

At CNN, Kornacki's fellow electoral math nerd John King said it would take a "mathematical miracle" for Saccone to win with absentee ballots, but even if he does, a tie is a big blow to Republicans; President Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016 and campaigned twice there for Saccone. As elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg put it, "the meaning of the election was clear" hours ago. Peter Weber

March 13, 2018
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Voters in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district go to the polls Tuesday to choose between Democrat Conor Lamb, a photogenic Marine veteran and former prosecutor, and Republican state lawmaker Rick Saccone. The district went for President Trump by 20 points in 2016. Trump has campaigned with Saccone twice, and Donald Trump Jr. toured a candy factory with him on Monday. Still, a Monmouth poll released Monday had Lamb, 33, with a slight lead over Saccone, 60. The seat was vacated when former Rep. Tim Murphy (R) resigned over a scandal involving a mistress he reportedly asked to get an abortion.

Republicans have poured more than $10 million into the race, mostly on attack ads against Lamb, while Lamb has raised about $4 million, mostly from small donations. GOP operatives have openly disparaged Saccone as a lackluster campaigner and poor fundraiser, but a loss in Trump country would shake up Republicans hoping to hold on to control of the House next year. Whoever wins will serve out the rest of Murphy's term, but the district will be completely different in November's election due to a new congressional map issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Peter Weber

March 12, 2018
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President Trump said a lot of things at his Saturday night rally in suburban Pittsburgh, but he didn't say much about the candidate he was there to endorse. Trump "got business out of the way quickly Saturday night — urging voters to elect Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone, who's locked in an unexpectedly tough special election battle in Pennsylvania — before turning to the main subject of the night: himself," Politico reports. He closed with an appeal to vote for Saccone, because "we need Republicans in office."

This was Trump's second rally with Saccone, following appearances by Vice President Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. But there's a reason Trump focused on himself, Jonathan Swan says at Axios: "Trump thinks Saccone is a terrible, 'weak' candidate, according to four sources who've spoken to the president about him." Republicans have poured more than $10 million into the race, mostly to attack Saccone's Democratic opponent, Conor Lamb, who has raised nearly $4 million on his own. Trump won the district by 20 percentage points.

Republicans have complained about Saccone for months, and "the thing that most irks senior Republicans involved in the race" is that "Saccone has been a lousy fundraiser," Swan notes. "Lamb has outraised Saccone by a staggering margin — nearly 500 percent." But there's also the widespread idea that Lamb's pulling even with Saccone in a reliably red district is Trump's fault.

You "should never read too much into any one race but this is more than Saccone," Cook Political Report's Amy Walter tells Axios. "The environment today is much worse than 'normal' for Republicans. That's not because of Saccone or Lamb, but because of Trump." Peter Weber

March 8, 2018
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Pennsylvania holds a special congressional election next Tuesday, and Republicans aren't sure their candidate, Rick Saccone, can win the conservative district President Trump took by 20 percentage points. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both came up to campaign with Saccone, but internal polling shows him barely trailing Democrat Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former prosecutor and Marine veteran who has spent his nearly $4 million war chest on professional ads and a 16-person full-time campaign team, Politico reports. Saccone has four full-time staffers and is a lackluster fundraiser; the national party has pumped millions into the race to rescue him.

"Candidate quality matters, and when one candidate outraises the other 5-to-1, that creates real challenges for outside groups trying to win a race," says Corry Bliss, who runs the main super PAC tied to House Republicans. As of Tuesday, Republican groups had spent nearly $7.5 million on TV ads alone, Politico says, but that infusion — "much of it highlighting the GOP tax cuts and attempting to tie Lamb to [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi — has failed to move the needle." White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is scheduled to campaign with Saccone on Thursday and Trump has another rally planned with him on Saturday.

As the election nears, "the national GOP is increasingly pinning the blame on Saccone," but "with so much attention trained on the race, House GOP leaders determined they had little choice but to spend whatever is needed to pull Saccone over the finish line," Politico says. "A loss would be wholly embarrassing, many Republicans privately acknowledge, given that it would take place in a state that Trump made a cornerstone of his 2016 victory. And the themes that the GOP has highlighted in the special election ... are the centerpieces of the party’s 2018 campaign plan." You can read more about the race at Politico. Peter Weber

March 7, 2018
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It's official: Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) is facing Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in the November midterms, getting a lower-than-expected 62 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Texas Democratic primary. (Cruz got just over 85 percent in the Republican primary.) Gov. Greg Abbott (R) will be able to spend his $43 million war chest against either former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez or Andrew White, the son of former Gov. Mark White (D), who will face each other in a runoff election for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Abbott, who got 90 percent of the vote in the GOP primary, largely failed in his $250,000 bid to sink three Republican state lawmakers he considered disloyal.

In other notable races, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush — Jeb Bush's son — defied some political obituaries to win the GOP primary outright, fending off a challenge from predecessor Jerry Patterson. (Bush will face Democrat Miguel Suazo.) In Houston, progressive activist and writer Laura Moser advanced to a Democratic primary runoff against lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, despite the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee trying to sideline Moser in the race to challenge Rep. John Culberson (R). Rep. Will Hurd's (R) Democratic challenger will be decided in a runoff between Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran, and Judy Canales or Rick Treviño. Texas will likely send its first Latina women to Congress, after Veronica Escobar and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D) won primaries for open seats in El Paso and Houston.

Democratic turnout was unusually high — at least 1 million Texans voted in the Democratic primary, likely beating the previous midterm primary record set in 2002 — but more than 1.5 million people voted in the Republican primary. "While 2002 was a high water mark for Democratic turnout in Texas it also showed the limits of the exuberance for turning the state blue," The Associated Press notes. "In November that year, the Democrats running for statewide office were all beaten, just as they have been since 1994." Peter Weber

February 28, 2018

Democrats contested three state legislative seats in Republican-leaning districts on Tuesday and won two of them, flipping their 39th seat since President Trump's inauguration and their sixth this year.

In New Hampshire, Democrat Phil Spagnuolo beat Republican Les Cartier, 54 percent to 46 percent, to represent a state House district Trump won 54 percent to 41 percent in 2016. Spagnuolo, a substance abuse recovery coach, campaigned on fighting the opioid epidemic and improving the economy. The seat was vacated after the death of state Rep. Donald Flanders (R) in September.

In Connecticut, Stratford town council member Phil Young became the first Democrat to win the House seat in District 120 in 44 years. He beat fellow town council member Bill Cabral, a Republican, to replace Laura Hoydick (R), who stepped down when she was elected Stratford's mayor. Hillary Clinton narrowly won the district in 2016, 50 percent to 49 percent. Young's platform included fighting opioid addiction, protecting the environment, and funding schools.

The Democrats' luck ran out in Kentucky's House District 89, where Republican Robert Goforth, a pharmacist, beat Democratic librarian Kelly Smith by 33 percentage points in a district Trump won by 62 points. Peter Weber

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