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Tight Race In Pa. Special Election Will Decide U.S. House Seat


There is a Pennsylvania special election today in coal country. Back in 2016, it was Trump country, and Republicans want to make sure it stays that way. The race for the House seat is far too close for comfort for the GOP, and the party has put a whole lot of money into the race, which has Republican Rick Saccone running against Democrat Conor Lamb. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us now.

Good morning, Mara.


MARTIN: Why is this House seat up for grabs in the first place?

LIASSON: That's a good question. This House seat was represented by Republican Tim Murphy. He'd represented the district since 2003. He was a strong anti-abortion advocate, but he had to resign in October after it was reported that he had asked a woman with whom he was romantically involved to have an abortion.

MARTIN: All right, so the seat is open. It has become far more competitive than at least Republicans had anticipated - the president feeling a little defensive, bragging on Sunday on Twitter that Republicans have won all five special elections for House seats this term. So does the president have reason to be worried about the outcome here?

LIASSON: He certainly does. The president won this district by nearly 20 points. And while he's right that Republicans have won all those special elections, there has been a steady tilt toward Democrats in those elections. They've been overperforming everywhere. And, of course, he failed to mention that Doug Jones, the Democrat, won in Alabama over Republican Roy Moore.

MARTIN: In the Senate, yeah.

LIASSON: But - yes, in the Senate. And it looks like it's going to be a toss-up. But if Democrats turn out in big numbers, especially in a white, working-class, Trumpy district like this one, it could be a real disappointment for the president who held a rally on Saturday near the district in part to campaign for the Republican candidate. And you can tell how worried Republicans are about this because the chairman of the state Republican Party is calling this a Democratic district even though Republicans have won the last eight elections there because it has a slight Democratic registration edge. And Republicans are already disparaging their own candidate.

MARTIN: Playing the expectations game.


MARTIN: So why bother pumping millions of dollars into a seat, as the GOP is, when the outcome's not really going to change the dynamics in the House - right? - in terms of the votes.

LIASSON: Absolutely not. The Republicans have spent over $10 million defending this seat. And this seat is a little like Brigadoon, that mythical Scottish village that disappeared in the mist, because this district is going to disappear because of a gerrymandering decision by the courts. In November, it won't exist. It'll have different boundaries, different voters. But right now, it's the only game in town, so it's being freighted with significance, and the results are going to be interpreted as an indicator of whether there's a Democratic wave or not. Republicans are worried that if they lose this race or just even win it by a hair, there will be more retirements. And it's going to be a test of whether Donald Trump can help Republicans even when he's not on the ballot. So this race is very symbolic, and it's very psychological even though it has almost no effect on the power dynamic in the House of Representatives.

MARTIN: So is this a referendum on the president or is - I mean, why is Conor Lamb, the Democrat in this race, so competitive in a solid Republican district?

LIASSON: Well, he's competitive for a couple of reasons. The Democrats nominated a candidate who fits their district. They didn't go to the left. They didn't nominate a kind of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren candidate. Conor Lamb is conservative on guns. He doesn't support Nancy Pelosi. He personally opposes abortion. And he's a pretty good candidate. He's raised a lot of money. He's appealing. He's a former Marine, former prosecutor. Also, the other reason he's so competitive in this district is that President Trump is unpopular even in places like the 18th District of Pennsylvania, and that never bodes well for the party down ticket. And this really has become a referendum on the president and his party, and this is a pretty good test case.

MARTIN: So people are going to be paying attention to this - party strategists as they look towards November, no doubt.

LIASSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson for us this morning. Hey, Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.