By: Brent Sailhamer, Director of Government Affairs
Last October, one of the most pro-life conservative Republicans in Congress abruptly resigned amid a personal scandal, bringing all eyes back on Pennsylvania. The resignation of Rep. Tim Murphy (R-18) not only left constituents throughout the 18th district without a representative in Congress, but set up the first real litmus test of the Trump administration after a year of service.
The 18th district makes up most of southwestern Pennsylvania, encompassing most of Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. To the west and south, the district borders West Virginia and has been a shining example of Pennsylvania’s “purple” status, offering a healthy mix of working-class Republicans and Democrats who remain loyal to coal and steel unions, while swerving to the right on issues like abortion and gun control. In terms of representation, the district has seen a wide spectrum from Republican John Heinz and Democrat Doug Walgren in the 1970s to Rick Santorum and Democrat Mike Doyle in the 1990s. In 2002, the district elected Tim Murphy, a staunchly pro-life Republican who led the charge on right to life issues. Last fall, Pittsburgh news outlets gained access to a deposition of divorce proceedings from a friend of Murphy. In his deposition, Murphy admitted that he was not only engaged in an extramarital affair, but urged his then-mistress to abort their child. Such a drastic contrast to his public positions fell flat with voters and Murphy resigned weeks later, setting in motion next week’s special election.
So why is this election so important?
First, Pennsylvania is embroiled in a redistricting fiasco that, although the newly proposed districts do not affect the March 13th election, will affect the candidates when they run in November. By independent analysis, nearly every district in Pennsylvania became more Democratic with the maps proposed by the Supreme Court, meaning a Republican win next week could be short-lived.
Second, the race serves as a precursor to the November elections where Democrats are already predicting huge gains. While the 18th district has maintained a Republican edge for decades, former federal prosecutor and Democratic candidate Conor Lamb is surging ahead in recent polls. With a victory for Lamb next week, Democrats will hammer a strong message of backlash for the Trump administration.
Finally, the race is affecting federal policy. Trump and his surrogates were cautious to come out strong in races last year for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, but the administration has doubled down in Pennsylvania. With visits from Ivanka Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and a scheduled visit from President Trump this weekend, the White House is signaling a desire to bring home a win. After all, these constituents are the very voters that handed Trump his victory in 2016 based on his campaign promises. With this week’s hardline position on steel and aluminum tariffs, pundits are suggesting that the move may be to reassure the voting base in the 18th district that Republicans are making good on promises.
Only time will tell who can claim victory, but until next week, all eyes are on Pennsylvania.