An upset, yes, but a short victory lap for Democrat Lamb in Pennsylvania

Several talking heads referred to “March Madness” to describe the tens of millions of dollars spent to win a congressional seat that won’t be on the ballot in the May 22 Pennsylvania primary.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, made a calculated decision to declare victory.

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His move came on the heels of Allegheny County’s absentee ballots, taking the race from a scant 95-vote margin to a seemingly insurmountable one.

 

If Lamb’s victory holds up, it is undoubtedly an upset. But if it had come at the beginning of the campaign, rather than after the 100-day slog through southwestern Pennsylvania, it would have been a true shocker. The race should have been close.

The 18th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, while still Democratic by registration, has been voting Republican for the past two decades. Donald Trump carried the district by nearly 20 points. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPrimary challenge to Trump? It could help him in 2020 Dem lawmaker calls Trump racist in response to 'dog' comment Former spokeswoman defends Trump calling Omarosa ‘dog’: He’s called men dogs MORE wasn’t far behind that margin, posting a 17-point victory as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2012.. The district is generally 11+ Republican. In the last two congressional races, the Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. The last time they did, he lost by almost 30 points.

If Lamb’s lead and his declaration of victory holds up, it will provide the Democrats with bragging rights and pundits with several days’ worth of nitpicking.

The victory lap may be a short one, though, and the bragging rights short-lived for the district seat that was up for grabs on Tuesday night. It won’t even be on the ballot on Primary Election Day, just two months hence. The district is vanishing as Lamb and Rick Saccone slugged it out for the seat vacated by Tim MurphyTim MurphyJordan weathering political storm, but headwinds remain Saccone loses GOP primary comeback bid in Pa. Nearly half of voters hope for Dems to win majority in 2018: poll MORE’s resignation last year.

That strangest of election scenarios is the result of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the current congressional district map. Under the new map the court created, neither Lamb nor Saccone lives in the district in which they just ran. Tuesday’s results give new meaning to “Pyrrhic victory.”

There are other reasons that the bragging rights may not be as long-lasting as some Democrats hope.

In the previous five state House elections, Democrats ran anti-Trump progressive resistance candidates, each time telling us that was the winning formula, but each time coming up short. This time they did something very different.

The Democrats chose Lamb, a telegenic young Marine and federal prosecutor. Instead of running against Trump, Lamb chose to more clearly ally himself with the voters of a still very pro-Trump district.

One of Lamb’s first public pronouncements was that he wouldn’t vote for Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiCárdenas starts legal defense fund for sex abuse lawsuit Booming economy, kept promises, making America great — again The Hill's Morning Report — Trump showcases ICE ahead of midterm elections MORE as minority leader. He went on to define himself as pro-gun and personally pro-life. Lamb sounded very much like Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDems to challenge Kavanaugh for White House records Overnight Health Care: Senate takes up massive HHS spending bill next week | Companies see no sign of drugmakers cutting prices, despite Trump claims | Manchin hits opponent on ObamaCare lawsuit Manchin hits opponent on ObamaCare lawsuit with new ad MORE, the U.S. senator from West Virginia, which forms both the southern and western borders of the 18th District.

The Republicans chose Saccone, a four-term state representative who won his first election by 151 votes and the rematch by a similar margin. He should never have let this race get that close.

Saccone wasn’t the first choice of most of the conferees who selected their party’s nominee. He emerged with a second ballot victory, but with some dashed ambitions, bruised egos and hard feelings in the wake. Saccone and his team weren’t able to heal those wounds as quickly and effectively as they needed to.

Saccone, a stalwart conservative who served his country admirably in both the military and government, never effectively made the shift from running for the state legislature to running for Congress.

Instead of dialing for dollars, Saccone was advised to knock on doors. As a result, Lamb outraised Saccone by a huge margin. That gave Lamb an opportunity to define himself as a centrist Democrat with close ties to organized labor.

Saccone, meanwhile, was forced to rely on spending from outside groups. That left him without the ability to control the message. He couldn’t tell his own, effective story and position himself as a veteran with close ties to the district and as an expert on North Korea.

By the time Saccone actually began airing his own ads, just last week, the story pretty much had been told.

Sadly for Saccone, the millions of dollars of outside assistance did little to boost his cause. The “Nancy had a little Lamb” ad didn’t help and actually may have backfired.

That left voter turnout, which determines most special elections. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE’s appearance for Saccone on Saturday helped to boost the GOP base, but only marginally. So did the foot soldiers some outside groups brought in.

On the other side, organized labor pulled out all the stops and Democrats continued to benefit from an enthusiastic and energized base.

And, of course, there was a spoiler. A Republican-turned-Libertarian managed to garner enough votes to tip the scales.

If Lamb prevails, he will have again proved the old adage that “all politics are local.” He tailored himself to a still very pro-Trump area.

Voters in the 18th Congressional District will welcome a break from the incessant 30-second ads that inundated a relatively small media market. They’ll wait to see where Lamb and Saccone run in the May primary. And they’ll let the pundits pick apart the results. For many of them, the brackets of their NCAA Basketball Tournament pools will take center stage. They’ll shift their attention to the NCAA Tournament that comes to Pittsburgh this weekend. That’s when the real March Madness begins.

Charlie Gerow, CEO of Quantum Communications and one of Pennsylvania’s most influential Republicans, is a nationally recognized leader in strategic communications and trusted advisor to leaders in government and business.