Voters in Western Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district head to the polls Tuesday for a hotly contested special House election. Republicans have spent nearly $10 million to save a seat that won’t exist in its current form by November. (March 13)

WASHINGTON — Republican optimism was hard to find Tuesday as Pennsylvania voters cast their ballots in a congressional district that President Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016.

With polls showing a tight race, GOP strategists were openly discussing the possibility of losing a House seat the party held for the last 15 years to a centrist Democrat who has done almost everything right.

The special election — to replace former Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned — pits Democrat Conor Lamb, a moderate ex-Marine and former prosecutor, against state lawmaker Rick Saccone, a conservative Air Force veteran who worked in counterintelligence. The race will have national implications, even if court-ordered redistricting means the seat won’t exist by the time the winner runs for re-election in November.

“This is a very tough environment for Republicans,” said Corry Bliss of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “In order to win in a tough environment we need good candidates who run strong campaigns … The Rick Saccone campaign was a joke. If we had even a serviceable candidate in this race, it would have been easy.”

Democrats say a win — or even a narrow loss — in this red district means they can compete anywhere by capitalizing on President Trump’s unpopularity and high levels of anti-Trump enthusiasm. 

And conversations with voters left little doubt those factors were part of what propelled Lamb’s candidacy.

“I like a lot of the positions (Lamb has) taken, but more importantly, I’m very upset with who we have as president and I see this as a referendum as well for what’s going on in the country,” said Paul Silver, 61, a musician from Mt. Lebanon who cast his ballot for Lamb.

But the candidates themselves created a race that may not be easily duplicated around the country. Lamb pitched himself as an average guy from the mostly white, working class district. Frequently clad in jeans and beat-up work boots at campaign events, he talked about the economy and jobs, focusing his outreach on veterans and union members.

He supported gun rights and opposed abortion, called for new leadership in his own party in Washington and avoided criticizing the president — whose popularity is 10 points higher in the district than it is nationally, according to Monmouth University polls out this month. 

“I like what Lamb is doing, what I hear him talking about … it seems like he’s more truthful than Saccone,” Larry Callaway, 70, a retired steelworker from Rostraver said after casting a ballot for the Democrat.

Callaway voted for Trump in 2016 because, he said, he wanted change.

“I guess I got a real big change, more than I anticipated,” he said.

Lamb also proved to be a formidable fundraiser, with supporters giving nearly $4 million. Saccone’s total was less than $1 million.

Outside GOP groups — aware of the symbolism of losing such a red seat — poured in more than $10 million to bolster him up. The pro-Ryan Congressional Leadership Fund was one of the race’s heaviest spenders in favor of Saccone, shelling out nearly $3.4 million.

Saccone ran on Trump’s agenda — he told USA TODAY he would be the president’s “wingman” in Washington — and the president and top Republicans rewarded him by coming to Pennsylvania for rallies and campaign events. But the party focused more on the need to keep the seat in Republican hands than on Saccone’s dozens of years in public service.

For some voters, that was enough.

Despina Naylor, a 54-year-old housewife from Rostraver, said she voted for Saccone “just because he’s a Republican” and would back Trump’s agenda.

“I just don’t want to put any more kinks or put any more barriers in front of the president,” she said.

Theresa Jacobs, a 51-year-old school bus driver from Boston, Pa., liked that Saccone had a record in Harrisburg she could look at.

“I’m more conservative — that’s why I went with Saccone. I feel that he’s done a great job as the legislator,” she said.

But Republicans worried they may still might not be able to keep the seat red.

“It’s widely expected that we will lose,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist not involved in the race who was a top aide on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. Conant added the district does have a lot of Republicans, so there was still a chance Republicans would win it if turnout was good.

But Conant said the combination of Democratic enthusiasm and a strong recruit could tip the scales against the GOP.

The victory Tuesday will be short-lived, however. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional districts after it ruled the old map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered. The new map — which gets rid of much of the current 18th district and renames it as the 14th — is expected to be put in place before the November midterms when all House members have to run for re-election. 

The new 14th district will become even more Republican-leaning territory if Saccone wanted to run again. Lamb will reside in the state’s newly competitive 17th district, currently held by a Republican.

Contributing: Jakob Lazzaro, Eric Miller, and Caroline Vakil reported from southwestern Pennsylvania for the Medill News Service

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