WASHINGTON — When the nation’s political class tunes in to Tuesday’s hotly contested special congressional election race in Pennsylvania, one Massachusetts man will be particularly invested in the result: Representative Seth Moulton.
Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb, the upstart attorney and former Marine who has surprisingly closed the gap in a deep-red congressional district, is one of the dozens of former service members Moulton has endorsed for Congress in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
Moulton has been an early supporter of his fellow Marine’s campaign for Congress, and he spent the past weekend holding campaign events with Lamb in his western Pennsylvania district. The Salem Democrat also raised nearly $80,000 on Lamb’s behalf.
Polls — and the national attention that comes with them — have started shifting in Lamb’s direction, putting him in a position to pull off one of the biggest electoral upsets of the post-Trump era.
Moulton and Lamb are united by military service and an antiestablishment streak that has caused both men to speak out against House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. A Lamb victory could raise Moulton’s profile as a kingmaker within the Democratic Party.
A lackluster performance, on the other hand, could reveal the limits of Moulton’s ability to sway voters in conservative districts and tap into anti-Trump energy.
Moulton “could be very well-positioned if this works out,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “It’s a good gamble. It makes him look as if he’s on the cutting edge of a new generations of politicians.”
During a recent campaign speech, Moulton said Lamb should go to Washington because he’s willing to take on members of his own party who “just aren’t getting it done.” Lamb, in return, called Moulton “a good friend” and a key source of support.
“He puts his money where his mouth his,” Lamb said about Moulton. “He has helped me in this campaign from the very beginning.”
Lamb’s district, Pennsylvania’s 18th, voted for Donald Trump by 20 percentage points more than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. In the days before Tuesday’s vote, Trump had invested a significant amount of political capital backing Republican candidate Rick Saccone.
He even traveled to the state Saturday to hold a raucous campaign-style rally, at which he mused on topics including giving drug dealers the death penalty, Celebrity Apprentice ratings, and the supposed attractiveness of his younger self.
On the final day of campaigning, Donald Trump Jr. traveled through a candy shop with Saccone, imploring Republicans to vote and criticizing the media for focusing on criticism of Saccone.
“God knows, if it’s going to make it difficult for Trump, the media’s going to be all over it,” the president’s oldest son said.
Still, political observers say Trump’s backing may not be enough. Despite the Republican Party’s advantages in the district, polls released Monday indicate that Lamb leads Saccone by two to six points.
Democrats are attempting to lower expectations before the vote, but some see signs that liberals are on their way to a surprising victory in Pennsylvania’s steel country, an outcome that would deeply embarrass Republicans.
The hullabaloo over the election is particularly interesting considering the district itself will soon disappear because of a court mandate that Pennsylvania redraw its congressional maps after years of Republican gerrymandering.
Still, Democrats want to use the race as another way to needle Trump.
“Democrats keep winning these special elections, and it reinforces the idea that Democrats have momentum going into the midterm elections in November,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist. “No matter what happens in Pennsylvania, there should be no reason this race is as close as it is. It’s clear people want an alternative to Trump.”
Manley pointed to the string of special elections and governor’s races that have gone the way of Democrats in recent months.
Democrats swept to victory in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and Senator Doug Jones surprised Republican candidate Roy Moore in the Alabama special election race in December 2017. Democrats have also won a spate of state legislature races around the country, including in districts, like the one in Pennsylvania, that strongly backed Trump in 2016.
Moulton, however, has criticized the Democratic Party’s candidate recruitment efforts and has called on the party to find a “new generation of leaders” who are more likely to break the establishment mold.
Lamb has vowed not to vote to back Pelosi if he is elected to Congress and has taken several other moderate positions.
He has been considered by some to be a test case of Moulton’s brand of antiestablishment rhetoric.
“If he loses big, it’s a bad day for Moulton,” Sheinkopf said. “But if he comes within a shot, he’ll look like a genius for predicting what’s ahead and that he’ll be out in front of the new generation.”
Lamb has largely, but not entirely, avoided tying himself to national Democrats. Vice President Joe Biden, who was born in Scranton, has campaigned with him.
Representative Joe Kennedy III, the Democrat from Brookline, also endorsed Lamb and traveled to his field office last month (although local media chided Lamb for keeping the event quiet and telling reporters he had no public events that day, only to discover Lamb had tweeted a photo of them together).
Saccone, for his part, has decided that embracing Trump wholeheartedly is his best political strategy. Even before Saturday’s joint campaign-style rally with the president, Saccone has called himself “Trump before Trump” and has echoed Trump’s desires to reduce immigration and reinvigorate the coal mining industry.
Saccone, 60, is a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He also has a military background, having served in the Air Force.
Democrats “have a hatred of our president,” Saccone said Monday at a closing campaign rally. “And I’ll tell you some more — my wife and I saw it again today — they have a hatred for God.”
If he loses, it could foreshadow what is already expected to be a difficult midterm election cycle for Republicans. While Trump remains popular with the GOP base, a series of special elections over the past year have shown that he has been driving higher voter turnout among Democrats while alienating independent voters.
Republicans have been hoping that the passage of their massive tax cuts and the climbing stock market numbers would help override some of Trump’s low popularity numbers.
In an effort to downplay expectations, GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has said she expects it to be a “tight, tight race.” McDaniel also demeaned Lamb as a Republican in disguise. “He’s progun, he’s protariff, he’s pro-Trump essentially,’’ she said.
A recent analysis by The Washington Post showed Republican-allied groups have outspent Democrats by more than $9 million on the race by the end of February. Democratic groups spent only $855,591.
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.