Pa. redistricting casts shadow over heated special election


Court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania looms over a high-profile special House election next month, with candidates competing to represent a district that will cease to exist in just a few months. 

Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone will face off on March 13 under the old lines for Pennsylvania’s 18th District. But the candidates will have to pivot immediately to a May primary election under new maps, which differ dramatically from the 18th’s current boundaries. 

Both candidates are making the rounds before next month’s special election, all while Republicans dump in millions to avoid what would be an embarrassing loss in a conservative district. But the major changes to the district threaten to deflate the significance of the race, while also confusing area voters.

“This is a situation I’ve never seen before, where somebody literally is going to have to run two campaigns at one time,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist in the district who ran a special election there in 2010.

“If you are planning on running in November and it’s a different district, you might have to — if you have the resources — invest in polling and messaging to figure out what might work in both districts. You don’t want to win one race to lose the other.”

The current 18th District is heavily Republican — President Trump won there by more than 20 points in 2016 — but is seen as increasingly competitive thanks to Democratic enthusiasm and widespread frustration with Trump. Recent polls show Lamb within a few points of Saccone. 

The new map, released by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday after the GOP-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor could not come to an agreement, does not affect the special election. But it will go into effect before the May primaries, barring any long-shot legal challenge, and it takes an axe to the old district lines. 

Much of the conservative parts of the district were drawn into the new 14th District. That district will be even more conservative than the old 18th, making it a prime option for a Republican candidate.

If Saccone can hold on in March, he’s expected to run for reelection in the new 14th, as there is no current incumbent who holds that district. Another option, theoretically, would be a bid in the new 18th District — but the new district’s heavily Democratic demographics make that a less favorable choice.

The other portions of the district were drawn into a more moderate district to the north of Pittsburgh, the new 17th District. That’s a far friendlier spot for Democrats — a New York Times’s analysis of the new district found that Trump would have won it by just 3 points in 2016.

That’s the likeliest landing spot for Lamb, whether or not he wins the special election in March. While the race would pit him against Rep. Keith Rothfus (R), it would be on far more favorable ground than running in the new 14th District. 

And since Lamb is running as an underdog in such a conservative district, Democrats say that a loss certainly wouldn’t necessarily end his political career.

Both candidates were drawn out of the 14th District, which will have the open seat, and into the new 17th. That likely won’t pose a problem for Lamb, since that district gives him a better chance at success in 2018. But while it may open Saccone up to some concerns about not living in the district if he chooses to run there, there’s confidence voters will give him a pass — at least for this election.

“It’s different if you move from one side of the county to another,” Mikus said.

“A matter of miles, I don’t think that’s a big deal for anybody.”

With the special election on March 13 and the deadline to file nominating petitions one week later, the candidates are going to have to figure out their November plans in a hurry. Candidates must turn in 1,000 valid signatures by March 20 to be eligible for the primary ballot, which often means turning in a far greater number to account for the regular mistakes that occur. 

The Lamb campaign would not comment where it will begin circulating petitions in a new district for the May primary. But in a statement to The Hill, Lamb reiterated a commitment to run for a full term in November, which would require meeting the petition requirement.

“As I’ve said from the beginning of this campaign, I will be running for a full term in Congress in 2018. I am entirely focused on the March 13th Special Election in the 18th District right now. This is our chance to have a vote and a voice in Washington on issues of great importance to our people, including the immediate threat of more than $1 trillion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid,” Lamb said.

“I’m concentrating on the election on March 13th and protecting the people of the 18th District from extreme budget cuts. I am running for this seat now and I will be running later no matter where they draw the lines.”

Saccone’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about their plans.

Pennsylvania political strategists on both sides of the aisle are confident that the two campaigns are carefully considering their options ahead of that petition deadline.

“All the B.S. you hear about just ‘focusing on the race ahead’ is, in my judgment, just that. I don’t know how you manage all those moving pieces in that time frame,” said Charlie Gerow, a veteran Pennsylvania Republican strategist.

Mikus agreed. 

“If Lamb is running in the 17th, because the petitions overlap with the election, he would conceivably have to be doing [get-out-the-vote] in one district and petitions in another,” he said.

The unique atmosphere also will neuter the effectiveness of some basic tactics, like voter targeting and persuasion done by campaigns and outside groups ahead of the special election. Many of the voters that the campaigns reach ahead of the special election won’t necessarily have their chosen candidate on the ballot this fall.

But the millions of dollars in television ads aired by GOP groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as a smaller investment by the Lamb campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will likely be unaffected by the district changes. An ad placed in the Pittsburgh market will still run across the area of both new districts. 

A spokeswoman for the Congressional Leadership Fund told The Hill that the new lines won’t change the group’s strategy in regards to the March special election. And a source familiar with the National Republican Congressional Committee’s efforts in the district said the same. 

That’s likely because of the symbolic implications of the GOP losing a reliably Republican seat months before the midterm elections. 

That compressed timeline complicates calculations even further, especially as the threat of more legal action remains. 

State and federal Republican officeholders are readying a legal challenge to the maps, and while legal experts consider it a difficult shot, Republicans are hopeful that the plan threw too much of a wrench into the process for a federal court to let stand.

There are also questions about who may choose to file in these new districts, particularly the more conservative 14th, without clarity as to whether a candidate will be mounting a campaign against an incumbent.

Taken together, all of that will make for significant confusion for area voters who have to be convinced to turn out in March for an election to keep a candidate in office for just nine months.

“I have no idea how voters will look at this. Those in Washington, Greene and Westmoreland, do they lose interest because they are not going to be in this district? Do they even know they won’t be in this district?” Mikus said, noting some of the counties in the area.

“It’s already weird for voters who think, ‘Why do I have to vote in March?’ To be safe, campaign really has to focus on anybody they’ve ID’d as voters, you’ve got to double down on your efforts to keep them engaged.”

Tags Donald Trump Keith Rothfus

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