Win or lose, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District is bad news for Republicans


It’s unclear who’s most likely to win as voters head to the polls Tuesday for a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. But no matter the outcome, the race points to troubling signs ahead for the Republican Party.

Polls show the race between candidates Rick Saccone (R) and Conor Lamb (D) is exceedingly close, with election analysts rating the race a toss-up. That fact alone is bad news for Republicans, who have easily carried this suburban Pittsburgh district for years.

President Donald Trump won the district by a 19-point margin in 2016, while GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried it by a 17-point spread four years earlier.

Republicans are preemptively trashing Saccone, the GOP nominee, in an effort to blame any possible loss on the candidate versus the party itself, especially in light of Trump’s poor approval ratings.

However, even a typical Republican candidate like Saccone should be able to carry a seat this red.

Unlike failed Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Saccone doesn’t have any unsavory allegations from his past (that we know of). He does have a conservative voting record from the decade he’s spent in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which theoretically should be a positive in a strong Republican stronghold like this one.

Even worse for Republicans is that outside groups have now spent more than $10 million to try and push Saccone to victory over Lamb, an attorney and veteran of the Marine Corps.

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Pennsylvania special election -- Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone
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Pennsylvania special election -- Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 6: Former Vice President Joe Biden attends a rally in support of Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb (C) Tuesday March 6, 2018 at the Union Carpenters Training Center in Pittsburgh. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Rick Saccone. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in support of Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone during a Make America Great Again rally in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 6: Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb talks with supporters at a rally Tuesday March 6, 2018 at the Union Carpenters Training Center in Pittsburgh. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Rick Saccone. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: Surrounded by campaign volunteers, Rick Saccone, Republican Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, takes questions form reporters at the Republican Committee of Allegheny County offices, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Democratic candidate Conor Lamb. President Trump will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally with Saccone. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: A cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump sits against the wall after Rick Saccone, Republican Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, spoke to reporters at the Republican Committee of Allegheny County offices, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Democratic candidate Conor Lamb. President Trump will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally with Saccone. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: (L to R) Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, and USW International President Leo Gerardand gesture together after Lamb spoke at a rally at the United Steelworkers Building, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Republican candidate Rick Saccone. President Trump will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally with Saccone. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: Campaign volunteers await the arrival of Rick Saccone, Republican Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, at the Republican Committee of Allegheny County offices, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Democratic candidate Conor Lamb. President Trump will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally with Saccone. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania� 18th district, speaks at a rally at the United Steelworkers Building, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Republican candidate Rick Saccone. President Trump will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally with Saccone. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 6: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally in support of Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb Tuesday March 6, 2018 at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Rick Saccone. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
WAYNESBURG, PA - MARCH 5: Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone meets with supporters at the VFW Post 4793 while campaigning on March 5, 2018 in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Conor Lamb. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, PA - JANUARY 13: Members of the audience listen to Democrat Conor Lamb, a former U.S. attorney and US Marine Corps veteran running to represent Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, at the American Legion Post 902 on January 13, 2018 in Houston, Pennsylvania in the southwestern corner of the state. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District next week in a bid to help Lamb's republican opponent, Rick Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 6: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally in support of Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb Tuesday March 6, 2018 at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Rick Saccone. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 6: Former Vice President Joe Biden visited Pittsburgh in support of Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb Tuesday March 6, 2018 at the Union Carpenters Training Center in Pittsburgh. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Rick Saccone. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 6: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally in support of Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb Tuesday March 6, 2018 at the Union Carpenters Training Center in Pittsburgh. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Rick Saccone. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
A man watches U.S. President Donald Trump speak in support of Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone during a Make America Great Again rally in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 6: Union carpenters wait to hear former Vice President Joe Biden speak in support of Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb Tuesday March 6, 2018 at the Union Carpenters Training Center in Pittsburgh. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Rick Saccone. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with special election Republican candidate Rick Saccone upon his arrival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: A supporter wears a sticker in support of Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania� 18th district, at a rally at the United Steelworkers Building, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Republican candidate Rick Saccone. President Trump will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally with Saccone. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WAYNESBURG, PA - MARCH 5: Rob and Carolyn Trozzi of Waynesburg pose with a Trump t-shirt after listening to Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone speak with supporters at the VFW Post 4793 while campaigning on March 5, 2018 in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Conor Lamb. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
WAYNESBURG, PA - MARCH 5: Vincent Fusca places a campaign sign on his truck for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone before the candidate met with supporters at the VFW Post 4793 while campaigning on March 5, 2018 in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Conor Lamb. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
WAYNESBURG, PA - MARCH 5: Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone meets with supporters at the VFW Post 4793 while campaigning on March 5, 2018 in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Conor Lamb. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
WAYNESBURG, PA - MARCH 5: Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone meets with supporters at the VFW Post 4793 while campaigning on March 5, 2018 in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Conor Lamb. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, PA - JANUARY 13: Democrat Conor Lamb, a former U.S. attorney and US Marine Corps veteran running to represent Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, before a speech to an audience at the American Legion Post 902 on January 13, 2018 in Houston, Pennsylvania in the southwestern corner of the state. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District next week in a bid to help Lamb's republican opponent, Rick Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Conor Lamb (L), the Democratic candidate in the special US congressional election in Pennsylvania's 18th District to be held March 13, 2018, greets a supporter (C) and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (R) during a campaign rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Friday, March 9, 2018. US President Donald Trump won the district comfortably in the 2016 presidential race, but Lamb is running neck and neck with his Republican opponent Rick Saccone. / AFP PHOTO / Michael Mathes (Photo credit should read MICHAEL MATHES/AFP/Getty Images)
WAYNESBURG, PA - MARCH 5: A volunteer places campaign signs for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone before he spoke with supporters at the VFW Post 4793 while campaigning on March 5, 2018 in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Saccone is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Conor Lamb. President Donald Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District March 10, 2018 in a bid to help Saccone. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: A sign in support of Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania� 18th district, hangs in the lobby of the United Steelworkers Building before a rally for Lamb, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lamb is running in a tight race for the vacated seat of Congressman Tim Murphy against Republican candidate Rick Saccone. President Trump will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a campaign rally with Saccone. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
MOON TOWNSHIP, PA - MARCH 10: President Donald J. Trump speaks to supporters at the Atlantic Aviation Hanger on March 10, 2018 in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. The president made a visit in a bid to gain support for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone who is running for 18th Congressional District in a seat vacated by Tim Murphy. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump supporters attends the Make America Great Again Rally on March 10, 2018 in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. President Trump travelled to Pennsylvania to speak at a ' Make America Great Again ' rally on behalf of Republican candidate Rick Saccone. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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That’s a massive amount of money for a single House district — especially this one, which won’t even exist in November thanks to a new congressional map from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. And it’s an unsustainable spending rate if similar Republican-heavy districts become competitive in the November midterm elections.

Many of the Republican ads have tried to paint Lamb as a liberal who didn’t back the GOP’s tax reform bill and who would be a puppet for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But the GOP ditched that messaging in the final stretch of the race, an indicator the message was not sticking.

Running on tax reform — and against Pelosi — is the GOP’s game plan for the midterms. If that messaging doesn’t work in a seat Trump won by nearly 20 points, that’s bad news for Republicans in other, more competitive seats in the fall.

Similarly, Trump himself endorsed and campaigned for Saccone, including a Saturday night rally in the district. If Trump can’t boost a GOP candidate in a seat this Republican, that looks like bad news for the party in November.

Tuesday’s contest is being held to replace former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), who resigned in disgrace in 2017 after news broke that he had pressured a mistress to have an abortion.

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