Here’s What You Need to Know About Pennsylvania’s ‘Bellwether’ Tuesday Special Election (Updated)

Democratic candidate Conor Lamb’s position on abortion rights has caught the eye of anti-choice groups seeking to involve themselves in the high-profile congressional race.

[Photo: Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb sits and listens to a speech.]
Beyond his position on a 20-week ban, Lamb has said he would not describe himself as “pro-life,” but he did tell the Weekly Standard that as a Catholic he personally believes “that life begins at conception.” Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

UPDATE, March 14, 8:35 a.m.: The Associated Press on Tuesday night declared the 18th Congressional District race too close to call, though Democrat Connor Lamb declared victory early Wednesday morning, the Washington Post reports.

Voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District will take to the polls Tuesday to pick their newest representative for U.S. Congress.

It’s a highly competitive race in a district President Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

The seat became vacant after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that incumbent anti-choice Republican Tim Murphy asked a woman with whom he was having an affair to have an abortion. That story came to light just after the U.S. House of Representatives passed an unconstitutional 20-week ban on abortion co-sponsored by Murphy the Pennsylvania lawmaker. Murphy, a member of the House Pro-Life Caucus, stepped down that same week, teeing off a special election that would ultimately pit 33-year-old Democrat Conor Lamb against Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone.

Polling in the district, which once showed a shoo-in for Republicans, now shows an increasingly tight race that is considered a “toss up” by the Cook Political Report. Just days before voters cast their ballots, several polls found Lamb leading Saccone by a narrow margin. It’s a remarkable shift given that the district is among many in Pennsylvania gerrymandered to favor the GOP.

Among the many issues at play in the race are questions about, as Vox phrased it, “what kind of Democrat” could win in a district where Republicans have previously enjoyed much success. Lamb’s positions don’t all align squarely with the Democratic platform and certainly stray from what some progressives hope to see in candidates.

Lamb is closer to the GOP on guns than current Democratic policy goals, for example. In the wake of the mass shooting last month at a Parkland, Florida, high school, Lamb still does not favor additional gun regulation. “I believe we have a pretty good law on the books and it says on paper that there are a lot of people who should never get guns in their hands,” Lamb reportedly said after the school massacre.

“I think that the emotions that a lot of us are feeling right now are very raw because we know that there’s not one thing we can do with the stroke of a pen or one thing you can ban,” he said according to TribLive. “We need a comprehensive answer on mental health.”

Lamb is personally opposed to abortion rights but has said he wouldn’t legislate based on his personal view at a time when the party is often at odds about whether to institute a “litmus test” on the issue. It’s a topic that has prompted anti-choice activists to take action in the state.

Anti-Choice Groups Testing Midterm Election Strategy

Lamb’s position on abortion rights has caught the eye of anti-choice groups seeking to involve themselves in the high-profile congressional race. The Faith Family Freedom Fund—a super PAC associated with Tony Perkin’s Southern Poverty Law Center-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group, the Family Research Council—last week launched a social media campaign targeting what they deemed to be the Democrat’s “extreme views” in opposition to a 20-week ban.

Lamb told the Weekly Standard in February that had he been in office when a 20-week ban came up for a vote, he would “have voted against it.” House Republicans passed such a measure last October, based on the medically and scientifically unsupported claim that a fetus can feel pain at that point in a pregnancy. When it came up for a vote in the Senate, Republicans, lacking a supermajority, were unable to pass the bill.

Anti-choice groups are using Democrats’ positions on 20-week bans to target those they deem vulnerable during the 2018 midterm elections. Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List President Marjorie Dannenfelser told Rewire.News that though the legislation was unlikely to make it to the president’s desk, it was “an important thing to get people on record for, to have the conversation, to build the vote ’til next time” and that it was meant “to make sure there is a very high-level public conversation,” especially “while we elect new senators who will add to the winning total.”

After a related measure failed in the Senate this February, SBA List jumped to tie some Democrats to the vote.

Pennsylvania’s special election could be the group’s first real testing ground for its strategy. SBA List’s super PAC, Women Speak Out, cited Lamb’s position on 20-week bans in its opposition to the candidate. The organization announced what it described as a “five-figure campaign” to oppose Lamb with digital ads, phone calls, and earned media in a press release in early March during the final days of the election.

Another anti-choice group that endorsed Saccone, CatholicVote, has also attempted to use Lamb’s position on the legislation against him in a video posted to its YouTube page.

Beyond his position on a 20-week ban, Lamb has said he would not describe himself as “pro-life,” but he did tell the Weekly Standard that as a Catholic he personally believes “that life begins at conception.” However, he added that “as a matter of separation of church and state, I think a woman has the right to choose under the law”—which is why he would vote against the aforementioned abortion restriction. Lamb has reportedly declined to offer specifics on his reproductive rights stance, such as whether he supports public funding for abortion care. His campaign told City&State PA in a statement that he “tells anyone who asks that he’s a Catholic who doesn’t think his personal religious beliefs should restrict a woman’s legal right to choose.”

It’s a sentiment he has repeatedly expressed, including while discussing abortion rights during a debate against his Republican opponent in mid-February.

Saccone during that debate pointed to his anti-choice record in the state’s legislature, bragging that legislation he voted for helped close “over 20 clinics” (a reference to 2011 legislation enacting tighter restrictions on abortion clinics) and said that it was “an obligation of [the] government” to push anti-choice policy. The National Right to Life-endorsed Republican has been vocal on social media about his opposition to abortion rights and has co-sponsored some related measures during his tenure in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, such as a bill to defund Planned Parenthood and a so-called conscience law which would have allowed for legal discrimination against some seeking reproductive health care.

Saccone has vowed to pursue legislation in line with his belief that “life begins at conception” should he be elected to serve in the federal government. “I faithfully supported that ideal in the State House, and will faithfully pursue it in Congress,” he said in a February tweet. Such rhetoric is line with “personhood” legislation, which could criminalize abortion care and some forms of contraception.

Tuesday’s Contest May Be National ‘Bellwether’ 

The District 18 race has been propped up as a potential “bellwether” of what the country might see come the November 2018 midterm election. On Friday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Ben Ray Luján said the race was a “tide-turning moment” for the district.

It’s worth noting that the district will soon cease to exist in its current state.

In January the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s congressional district map had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered and should be redrawn. Republicans subsequently panicked, calling to impeach the justices who made the ruling. After Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and the Republican-led state legislature failed to come to an agreement on a new map, the court stepped in and released their own.

“By the time the November 2018 midterms roll around, neither Lamb or Saccone will live in the new 18th district,” as USA Today’s Eliza Collins explained. “Lamb is expected to run in the 17th district, which under the new map is more favorable for Democrats. Saccone could end up running in the newly drawn 14th district. Much of the current 18th district will become the 14th, which would be even more Republican-friendly.”

Though Tuesday’s results may not say much about whether the victor will stay in office for the long haul, an analysis from Vox noted that the newly drawn lines could be “enormously good news for Democrats in their effort to take back the House.”

“Republicans currently hold the majority in the entire House of Representatives by 24 seats,” wrote Vox‘s Andrew Prokop. “Now, all of a sudden, their chances in several key Pennsylvania races have sharply improved—there are now five very plausible pickup opportunities in this state alone.”