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Republicans have spent more than $9 million to hold a district that won’t exist in November

Trump won Pennsylvania’s 18th District by 19 points. Now the Democrat is polling within single digits.

GOP Congressional Candidate Rick Saccone Holds Campaign Rally With PA Coal Miners
Rick Saccone.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

In a show of last-minute panic, Republicans are throwing money at a Pennsylvania House special election in a district President Donald Trump won by 19 points.

The official campaign arm for House Republicans reported spending another $619,664 on media ahead of the March 13 election for Pennsylvania’s 18th District House seat, bringing the total to $3.5 million on media buys, according to Politico’s Jake Sherman.

In an added twist, the district won’t even exist in its current form by the November midterms because a ruling from the state Supreme Court requires that the boundaries be redrawn.

Republican Rick Saccone, a Trumpian Republican candidate, is vying to take former Republican lawmaker Tim Murphy’s seat, after Murphy resigned amid reports that he asked a woman he was having an affair with to get an abortion.

The district, which currently covers the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, should have been an easy race for Republicans. It’s rated as an R+11 district, a heavy Republican tilt that’s in part due to the state’s partisan gerrymandering that the state Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional.

But Republicans have been getting nervous that they might lose the seat to Saccone’s Democratic opponent Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine and former assistant US attorney who has been winning the support of the district’s building trade and energy unions — voters who used to align with Murphy — and polling within single digits of Saccone.

Republican-aligned groups have greatly outspent Democrats in the race. According to the Washington Post, as of February 27, Saccone-allied groups had spent a total of $9.1 million on the race, between the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and others. Meanwhile, Democratic groups and labor unions had spent less than $1 million.

The district’s demographics will change come November, when the seat will be up for reelection under a redrawn map — a potentially huge help for Democrats’ efforts to regain control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Republicans currently hold 12 of Pennsylvania’s 18 House seats, with District 18 up in the air.

There’s no question that Lamb’s polling numbers have spooked Republicans. Neck and neck with Saccone, Lamb is giving Democrats hope of an even larger sweep in the year ahead, when the map will likely be more favorable to them.

But why Republicans feel compelled to spend millions on a special election in a district that will only become more competitive in November is more puzzling.

Go deeper:

  • Democrat Conor Lamb has mounted a serious campaign in a district that was supposed to be an easy Republican win. Vox’s Ella Nilsen explains the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th.
  • Vox’s Andrew Prokop explains how Pennsylvania went from a contender for “gerrymander of the decade” to having the potential to be a big win for Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
  • How did we get here? It all started when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published text messages in which a woman said anti-abortion lawmaker Tim Murphy had asked her to have an abortion.