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Pennsylvania’s Special Election Is Too Close to Call. Here’s Why It Matters So Much

On Tuesday, voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District went to the polls to elect a new member of Congress.

While the district has long been a Republican-stronghold, the two candidates were polling neck and neck ahead of yesterday’s election. As of Wednesday morning, the race is too close to call, with Democrat Conor Lamb marginally ahead by a few hundred votes.

One county in the district has yet to count its absentee ballots, so no winner has been declared. With the tallies so close, Republican candidate Rick Saccone could also potentially challenge the results.

Why a special election?

Last year, Rep. Tim Murphy resigned his seat after reports that he was having an affair. The congressman reportedly impregnated his mistress and then pressured her into having an abortion.

Before Murphy’s scandal came to light, he’d won eight consecutive elections in his district. According to FiveThirtyEight, Murphy won handily each time, beating his opponent by at least 15 percentage points. In 2014 and 2016, Murphy didn’t even face a Democratic challenger.

Pennsylvania’s 18th District lent considerable votes to President Donald Trump in 2016 and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. Last year, Trump carried the district by 19 points.

Who is running for Murphy’s seat?

In what’s become a surprisingly tight race, Democrat Conor Lamb will face Republican Rick Saccone. Lamb, 33, is an attorney and a former U.S. Marine. A moderate, Lamb is personally opposed to abortion, not in favor of a ban on assault rifles, and has stated that he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi as the Democrats’ House leader.

Democratic Conor Lamb Campaigns For Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District Special Election
Lamb is the Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania’s 18th district.Drew Angerer Getty Images
Drew Angerer—Getty Images

His GOP opponent Saccone, on the other hand, has called himself “Trump before Trump was Trump.” He is a multi-term state legislator and a social conservative.

Although Saccone has not proven to be a strong fundraiser (FiveThirtyEight claims he has raised almost $920,000 for the race as compared to Lamb’s $3.9 million), he has received over $10 million from Republican groups to prop up his campaign.

Republican National Committee staffers have reportedly gone door-knocking on his behalf, while the Koch brothers have spent “hundreds of thousands on a mail and field deployment campaign.” President Trump himself made a campaign appearance with Saccone on Saturday, and Donald Trump, Jr., is due to campaign with the Republican candidate on Monday. Vice President Mike Pence, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Ivanka Trump also campaigned for Saccone last month.

Rick Saccone speaks at an election rally in Pennsylvania
Rick Saccone is the Republican candidate in Pennsylvania’s special congressional election.Drew Angerer Getty Images
Drew Angerer—Getty Images

According to figures acquired by Politico, Republicans have outspent Democrats nearly two-to-one on ad buys in the race, dolling out more than $8 million on TV ads alone. While the figures aren’t as high as what was spent in Georgia’s special election last year (the most costly ever at $69.2 million), the two sides in Pennsylvania have reportedly spent a total of $15.6 million.

What’s at stake?

The race is potentially a huge opportunity for Democrats. Like Doug Jones’s win in the special election in Alabama, a win for Democrats in Pennsylvania’s 18th District would further add to the party’s momentum in the run-up to November’s midterm elections and hint at dwindling support for Trump.

For Republicans, a loss in this GOP stronghold could be potentially disastrous. While there are 70,000 more registered Democrats in the area, the district is predominantly represented by Republicans. Only two Democrats have held the seat in over 100 years, with Rep. Michael Doyle serving until 2003. A Saccone loss would be a huge blow to the party—and Trump. With the president lending airtime and support to the candidate, some fear blame would be placed on Trump if Saccone loses.

This story has been updated with election results as of 6:30 a.m. EDT Wednesday morning.