GOP Burns Millions to Save a Republican in a Vanishing District in Trump Country

They aren’t the only ones facing a tough choice. Democrats are also wondering how much the fight for Pennsylvania 18th is worth.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Two weeks out from the latest congressional special election, there seems to be no limit to the amount of cash that outside Republican groups are willing to throw behind their party’s nominee, State Representative Rick Saccone.

Three Republican groups have now invested more than $5 million in television and radio ads in the district. On Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee purchased another $500,000 in paid media, bringing the total it has spent to more than $2 million, Matt Gorman, NRCC communications director, told The Daily Beast. America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC has reportedly pumped another $1 million into the race. And a spokesperson for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely linked to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), said it has invested $2.2 million on television to date. In addition to that, CLF has an active field program with 50 full-time door knockers in the district. A Democratic source tracking the recent spending estimated, based on FEC information, that Republican groups have added at least $1.6 million to their existing purchases in the past week alone.

These types of investments are usually saved for the highest-profile of races. Sometimes, Senate contests won’t cost this much. But what makes the financial support all the more remarkable is that the district is unlikely to exist by the time of the next election.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has demanded that the state redraw its heavily gerrymandered districts. And though the end product has drawn legal challenges from Republicans, it is likely to be upheld. Under that newly proposed map, Saccone, should he win, would likely be competing in a new district come the November elections.

Republicans working in the district say they have no hesitation about investing millions in a race whose results will hold for only a matter of months. The party views the battle for Pennsylvania’s 18th District as one that will have ripple effects that extend to the vote in November. And they see the money as necessary to help a flawed candidate prevail.

“If there was a really good Republican candidate, you guys wouldn’t be paying attention to this,” said a GOP operative working on the race, who requested to speak anonymously to be more candid.

While the Republican Party is sparing no expense in its efforts to hold on to the seat vacated by former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), the Democratic Party’s investments have drawn scrutiny as well, but for different reasons.

Conor Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor, has primarily relied on his own fundraising. And for good reason. He’s raised a lot. Ahead of a March 1 filing deadline with the Federal Election Commission, Lamb’s campaign said it had brought in more than $3.2 million between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21, with an average individual contribution of $33. In total, the campaign said he has raised more than $3.8 million.

Outside of the campaign, Lamb has received modest help. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent over $250,000 on ads on his behalf and it remains unclear if more is on the way. Lamb has gotten a boost from End Citizens United in the form of an ad buy worth a quarter million dollars. And on Tuesday night, Democratic Patriot Majority PAC threw in $250,000 for TV ads and digital media.

National Democrats have been torn as to whether a larger footprint would be wise or whether the party would be smarter to turn its attention to districts that will last past November or, better yet, gubernatorial contests that could have a down-the-road impact on the congressional redistricting that comes after the 2020 census.

Former governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley, who will be campaigning for Lamb on Wednesday, said he was not worried that outside groups were being outflanked by Republicans. “I think Conor Lamb can defend himself,” he said. “The guy’s a Marine, he was a prosecutor.” But O’Malley also argued that the party shouldn’t ignore the contest directly ahead of it.

“Regardless of what the district looks like in the next iteration, the contest is here and the contest is at hand,” O’Malley told The Daily Beast.

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Other party leaders have implored donors, outside groups, and others to maintain a bigger picture focus instead of being overly moved by the special-election du jour. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who serves as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said he wasn’t paying too close attention to the money being spent in PA-18. But, he added, the party had “woken up” to the idea that state elections, not federal ones, were the foundation for its revival.

“It is long overdue and I count myself in that too,” Inslee told The Daily Beast. “I should have been more aware of this 10 years ago. But we now get it. And we have a combination of a chaotic narcissistic in the White House, who has driven activism, and we have people who understand the necessity of winning back these seats.”

Democrats have invested heavily in a congressional special election before, only to come up short. The party put more than $30 million into Georgia’s 6th District last spring, only to lose a close contest. There is no similar expenditure being made this time, even though the race could very well be closer. Recent polls have indicated a close contest and the Cook Political Report called the race a toss-up on Tuesday.

The focus of many of the ads on the Republican side has been that Lamb would be a rubber stamp for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), despite the fact that he has repeatedly said he would not back her as leader. This strategy has extended to the conservative group Americans for Prosperity which reportedly has also initiated a mail and phone-banking operation in the district attempting to tie Lamb to Pelosi. The Republican operative who spoke to The Daily Beast said that a recent ad from Lamb rebutting this criticism is proof positive that the strategy is paying dividends.

For many Democrats, the race is gravy. Should Lamb win, it will be interpreted as a rebuke to Trump and a major emotional boost to the party’s prospects heading into the 2018 elections. And if Lamb doesn’t pull off an upset in a district the president won by nearly 20 points in 2016, he’ll have raised his profile enough to make another run in an easier district. In the newly proposed map, Lamb has been drawn out of the 18th District and would likely be competing in the new 17th which would be much more favorable territory for Democrats.

“They’re investing a ton of money and if Conor Lamb is able to pull this off, it’s going to show that it was quite foolish to invest so heavily in such a weak candidate like Rick Saccone,” Mike Mikus, a Democratic operative in the Pittsburgh area, told The Daily Beast.