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US Politics

Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb declares stunning election victory in the heart of Trump country

Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, and he dubbed Democrat candidate ‘Lamb the Sham’ - but the baby-faced 33-year-old Marine veteran may have the last laugh

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 1:39pm

Conor Lamb, a moderate Democrat, claimed victory in Tuesday’s election for a US House of Representatives seat in Pennsylvania that is seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s performance and a litmus test for midterm elections in November.

“It took a little longer than we thought but we did it. You did it,” Lamb told cheering supporters as results showed him ahead of Republican rival Rick Saccone by 579 votes, or 0.3 of a percentage point.

It was a stunning victory for the baby-faced Democrat in what was once considered a rock-solid Republican bastion. Trump - who visited Pennsylvania on the weekend to stage a major rally for Saccone - won by 20 points in the 2016 presidential vote.

Saccone had yet to concede. “We’re still fighting the fight. It’s not over yet. We’re going to fight all the way to the end. You know I never give up,” Saccone told cheering supporters.

A recount is possible, pending a legal challenge. But there is no automatic recount in Pennsylvania, no matter how close the race

But win or lose, the strong showing by Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran, buoys Democrats nationally as they seek to win control of the US House from Republicans in the November midterm elections.

“This is one extra indicator that confirms a fairly pro-Democratic environment, pro-Democratic enough that the House should be in play. Democrats should be able to compete in a lot of different places across the country,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Centre for Politics.

Republican dominance had been so strong in the district, a patchwork of small towns, farms and Pittsburgh suburbs, that Democrats ran no candidates in the previous two US House elections here. Lamb’s image as a moderate seemed to have worked in his favour.

Saccone, 60, a state legislator who has described himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump,” led the race by more than 10 percentage points in January.

But Lamb, a pro-gun Democrat with strong backing from unions,surged in polls as Democratic voters sensed a chance to show their opposition to Trump.

Saccone, a former Air Force counter-intelligence officer, drew criticism toward the end of the campaign by saying that some of his opponents “have a hatred for God.”

The White House arranged a string of visits to energise Saccone supporters. Trump himself held a campaign rally for Saccone last weekend, dubbing his Democrat opponent “Lamb the sham” and on Tuesday he again voiced backing for the Republican.

“The Economy is raging, at an all time high, and is set to get even better. Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!” Trump said on Twitter.

The contest, to replace a Republican who resigned amid a scandal last year, was the latest good election showing for the Democrats, who also won a governor’s race in Virginia and scored a US Senate upset in conservative Alabama.

Tuesday’s result has little bearing on the current balance of power in the House, but Democrats hope a win will boost their momentum as they try to pick up the 24 seats they need to gain control in November.

Of the 85 races currently viewed as competitive, 55 are in congressional districts that Trump won in 2016, according to the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Saccone’s poor performance is worrying for Republicans who were sure that tax cuts, the party’s only major legislative achievement under Trump, will be a vote winner this year.

However, the sweeping tax overhaul did little to energise local voters, some of whom dismissed it as a giveaway to the wealthy.

Republicans found it harder than expected to mount effective attacks on Lamb’s positions on abortion, guns and the national Democratic Party.

He has also eschewed the national Democrat brand, saying he would not support House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

Lamb says he personally opposes abortion but accepts the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision allowing abortion as the law of the land.

Larry Gdovic, 61, a state government employee from Elizabeth Township, voted for Lamb. “He’s a young new guy with a lot of good, fresh ideas. I don’t believe he’s a total Democrat,” Gdovic said.

Lamb, who hails from a prominent Pennsylvania political family, rarely mentions Trump, focusing on economic issues, health care and protecting Social Security and Medicare.