PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA — On Tuesday, voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th district will elect a new congressional representative to replace Rep. Tim Murphy (R), who resigned last fall amid scandal. The special election has drawn national attention to a district that likely won’t exist just two months from now.
As national media has descended on Western Pennsylvania ahead of the closely watched special election, the ongoing drama over the state’s congressional map lurks in the background. Whoever wins Tuesday will serve for just nine months before having to run again ahead of the midterms this fall, and a lengthy fight over gerrymandering in the state—a strategy of drawing districts in outlandish ways in an effort to elect more members of one party—means that whoever wins, should they run again, will have to do it all over again in a new district.
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court struck down the congressional map in January, determining that it violated the state’s constitution.
For three straight election cycles, Republicans in the state have held 13 seats in the state’s congressional delegation, while Democrats have held just five. That disparity is in large part due to the gerrymandered map that benefited Republicans.
“This was some of the most egregious gerrymandering we’ve ever seen in this county,” Marc Stier, the director of Pennsylvania’s Budget and Policy Center, said in a phone call with ThinkProgress Monday.
“This was some of the most egregious gerrymandering we’ve ever seen in this county.”
After Republicans in the state legislature were unable to come up with a solution that satisfied the court, the justices stepped in to redraw the districts. The new map would have four swing districts, eight that favor Republicans and six that favor Democrats.
But the fight rages on, with Republicans taking the issue to federal court in Pennsylvania as well as all the way to the Supreme Court, which has so far declined to intervene. Now, with Pennsylvania’s 2018 primaries just two months away, the legal fight could force the state to delay primaries if it’s not resolved in time.
According to Stier, it’s likely we’ll see both candidates vying to win Tuesday’s special election — Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone — running again for different seats before the year is up.
“There’s some background to this election in that people expect that both candidates running tomorrow will run again in different districts,” Stier said, but, he added, “That’s such a detail for junkies like us that I don’t think it affects people voting tomorrow.”
But a victory on Tuesday could put one of the two candidates in a stronger position to run in a new district. Lamb, for example, would likely run in what is currently Rep. Keith Rothfus’ (R) district.
“This huge victory could really help him if he does decide to run in Rotham’s district,” Stier said. “It does give him an advantage if he’s an incumbent.”
And a win for Lamb on Tuesday would be huge. Although Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, Lamb looks now to be in striking distance of Saccone, down by single digits in most polls and even leading in a few released just this week.
Notably, if Lamb did choose to run in Rotham’s district, he’d have to get through a primary first. Lamb has bucked the national Democratic Party in his effort to win in the 18th district, saying he wouldn’t support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker. Lamb has also said he would not support an assault weapons ban and that, although he is personally pro-life, he wouldn’t support a 20-week abortion ban. Should Lamb run in another primary just months from now, those stances could be called into question.
As for the 18th district, the one that’s so hotly contested this week? As Stier put it, “In a lot of ways, this district kind of disappears. Things get divvied up so differently.”
All of this means that Tuesday’s hyped-up special election ultimately has no effect on Democrats’ efforts to take back the House of Representatives. In fact, Stier said Monday that Tuesday’s election isn’t really about Lamb or Saccone at all.
“The force of this election is not who gets into Congress,” Stier said. “It’s really about how the political winds have shifted.”