CANONSBURG, Pa./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans sounded alarm bells on Wednesday after Democrats claimed victory in a Pennsylvania congressional election seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s performance, although the final vote result remained officially too close to call.
In an ominous sign for Trump’s Republicans eight months before national midterm elections, moderate Democrat Conor Lamb led conservative Republican Rick Saccone by a fraction of a percentage point in the race for the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The final result may not be available until Friday.
The election should have been a shoo-in for Republicans. Trump actively campaigned for Saccone, who started the race well ahead of Lamb in a district Trump won by almost 20 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Republican Speaker Paul Ryan called the election a “wakeup call” in a meeting with Republican House members on Wednesday and pushed them to raise more campaign funding. He also urged them to do more to highlight tax cuts approved by the Republican-dominated Congress and signed by Trump.
Lamb led Saccone by 516 votes on Wednesday after absentee ballots were counted. Counting of provisional ballots – those cast by voters whose registration requires extra confirmation – was to begin on Friday.
Republicans have not conceded the race and were not ruling out a recount or other legal action, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said. Provisional ballots will not be counted until Friday.
House Republicans called the race unique, noting Lamb, 33, a U.S. Marines veteran, had distanced himself from his party’s leaders and staked out positions to the right of many Democrats.
“I don’t think you’ll see another candidate like Lamb,” said Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York.
Representative Mike Kelly, who represents Pennsylvania’s 3rd District, said Lamb was “more like a Republican.”
“I thought Conor Lamb ran a very good race because he ran on the Trump agenda,” Kelly said.
‘TRUMP BEFORE TRUMP WAS TRUMP’
The patchwork of small towns, farms and Pittsburgh suburbs that make up Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district is so Republican that Democrats did not even field candidates in the previous two U.S. House elections.
Saccone, 60, a former Air Force counter-intelligence officer, had described himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump,” and led the race by more than 10 percentage points in January.
Trump held two events in the district during the campaign, including a high-profile rally on Saturday. Last week, he announced tariffs on imported steel that had been expected to appeal to voters in a state known for its steel industry.
The election, held to replace a Republican who resigned amid a scandal last year, was the latest good electoral showing for the Democrats, who also won a governor’s race in Virginia and scored a U.S. Senate upset in conservative Alabama.
Lamb’s strong showing could buoy Democrats nationally as they seek to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans in the November elections. Democrats see 118 Republican-held districts in play. If they flip 24 seats, they could reclaim a majority in the House.
Republican donors and strategists have been anxious about high levels of enthusiasm on the Democratic side and have emphasized the need to motivate Republican voters to turn out to retain the party’s grip on the U.S. Senate and House.
U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida, said the Pennsylvania race showed that lawmakers should be willing to buck their own leadership on certain issues or work across the aisle.
“I do it all the time. I hear Conor Lamb speak and I say, ‘That kind of sounds like me,’” said Curbelo, a moderate who has urged his party’s leaders to bring gun control measures up for votes and also worked with Democrats on immigration issues.
A Lamb win could vindicate a strategy Democrats are using in some races to enlist candidates whose positions and ideologies are well suited to the district even while conflicting in significant ways with the positions of the Democratic leadership in Washington.
Lamb advocated for gun rights and said Representative Nancy Pelosi should be replaced as House Democratic leader, making it harder than expected for Republicans to attack some of his positions. It may be seen as a template for the Democrats to flip certain Republican seats that went for Trump.
Saccone’s poor performance is worrying for Republicans who were sure that tax cuts, the party’s only major legislative achievement under Trump, would be a vote winner this year.
But that sweeping overhaul did little to energize local voters, some of whom dismissed it as a giveaway to the wealthy.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Alistair Bell and Roberta Rampton; Editing by John Stonestreet and Bill Trott