On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Democrats seize congressional seat in historic cliffhanger vote

A seat in the United States House of Representatives appears to have changed hands, with Democratic Party candidate Conor Lamb holding a 847-vote margin in late-night counting for the special election for the 18th district of Pennsylvania.

The outcome today is not yet concluded. With 591 of the electorate’s 593 precincts reporting, Lamb holds 111,875 votes to Republican candidate Rick Saccone’s 111,028.

On current numbers today’s election outcome is a closer result than all but three of the nearly 1,300 House contests held at the 2016, 2014 and 2012 general elections, the recent record being a 161-vote win in an Arizona district in 2014.

A third candidate in today’s election, Libertarian Drew Miller, won 1,351 votes – nearly twice the margin between the two major party candidates. But US elections are decided by plurality votes, so the ballots cast for Miller will go no further towards deciding the outcome.

The late-night election count is far from the end of matters. Elections expert Dave Wasserman is reporting that as many as 7,000 absentee ballots remain to be counted, although some appear to be being counted late into the night. Wasserman believes these historically tend to favour Democratic candidates, potentially giving Lamb a vital safety buffer.

[Update: with the final two precincts now reporting, the result stands at a 579-vote win by Democratic candidate Conor Lamb. But more absentee votes are still to be counted.

According to Politico website, “the current vote count includes more than 3,000 absentee ballots from Allegheny County, the most Democratic-leaning of the four counties that make up the district, and 1,808 from Westmoreland County, a Republican-leaning county. Lamb carried Allegheny County, 57 percent to 42 percent”.]

In any case, the possibility of an official recount now seems very likely. Saccone has declined to concede defeat at this stage, reasonably enough.

Today’s special election was caused by former congressman Tim Murphy resigning in disgrace after the married pro-life politician was revealed to have pressured his lover to terminate her pregnancy.

The massively anticipated end to the resulting contest will do nothing to change the current political control of the House, but will send shock waves across the US political landscape.

With almost every special election held in the US since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and a Republican majority in Congress, growing expectations of a major swing to the Democrats will now dominate politics until November’s mid-term elections of the full House.

President Trump campaigned hard for Rick Saccone, but to no avail. Trump’s extraordinary decision to re-impose international tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the US was tailor-made to appeal to the working class heartland of the district, which includes the outer suburbs of Pittsburg and rural and industrial communities in the south-western corner of Pennsylvania.

During 2017 a series of five Republican House member resignations – mostly to take up positions in Trump’s government – led to special elections in normally safe Republican districts. The new Republican candidates held on to each of these seats, but large swings caused by Republican voters staying home gave all of them frights.

Then in December 2017 the Republicans lost a special election for a normally ultra-safe US Senate seat for the state of Alabama. Once again, low turnout, especially very low support from Republican voters, drove the result.

Now today the Republicans have finally lost a House seat, in a district that Donald Trump won by a 20% margin in the 2016 presidential election.

As in the Alabama Senate contest, the Democrats found a highly marketable candidate, and the Republicans chose a lacklustre one.

The last time the 18th district seat was fully contested was in the presidential election year of 2012, when the Republican incumbent Murphy won massively with 216,727 votes to the Democrats 122,146.

In 2014 Murphy was unchallenged, but still officially recorded 166,076 votes in the lower-turnout mid-term election. In 2016, again unchallenged in a presidential election year, Murphy registered 293,684 votes.

Today these numbers have crashed, most dramatically for the Republicans. Candidate Saccone today shed nearly two-thirds of the Republican Party’s 2016 election support. By comparison, Lamb’s 111,000 vote tally today is only slightly shy of this party’s 2012 presidential election year figure – evidence of extraordinary mobilization in his support.

All the special elections in the past year saw much lower turnouts than in normal November elections, especially compared to full presidential election year elections. Such outcomes are normal for US elections.

But in the past year Democratic candidate support is surging relative to normal results for special elections, while large numbers of Republicans are simply staying home.

In Congress the Republican Party will still hold a majority of 240 to 195 over the Democrats in the House. They also hold a 51-47 advantage in the Senate (together with 2 independents who broadly favour the Democrats).

But if the swings seen last year and today are replicated in November, the Democrats would most probably win a majority in the House, and may even gain seats in the Senate.

Already the expectations of a Democratic party win in November are boosting fundraising and candidate recruitment for the Democrats, and having the opposite effect for the Republicans. A record number of Republican House incumbents are choosing to retire rather than re-contest their districts in November.

Three more late-2017 and early-2018 resignations from the House remain to be sorted out. There will be an election for the vacant seat for the 8th district of Arizona on April 24, and a delayed one for the 12th district of Ohio on August 7, both caused by Republican resignations.

And in an extraordinary decision, the 13th district of Michigan – an ultra-safe Democratic party district – will remain vacant until 8 November, after the Republican state governor declined to even schedule a special election. The candidate elected then will only serve out the last two months of the current term.

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