Pa. Special Election Turns Out To Be Unexpectedly Tight

Mar 14, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 9:55 am
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The vote tally is still too close to call in Tuesday's special House election in Pennsylvania, but both candidates spoke like winners last night.


CONOR LAMB: It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it.



RICK SACCONE: Don't give up. And we'll keep it up. We're going to win it.


GREENE: OK. A bit confusing, both candidates declaring victory - Democrat Conor Lamb followed by Republican Rick Saccone. The two faced off yesterday in a contest for the state's 18th Congressional District. This race was unexpectedly tight heading into election day. But eventually, last night, it was declared too close to call, though that didn't stop Lamb from giving a victory speech. Joining us to talk about some of the national implications of this race is Tom Perez. He is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Perez, welcome back to the program.

TOM PEREZ: Great to be with you and your listeners, David.

GREENE: Well, Democrats here spent millions of dollars to try and win this one House race. What were you trying to prove?

PEREZ: We're trying to prove that we can win everywhere. And we did prove it. We organize everywhere. We win everywhere. We talk about the issues that matter most to people. That's what Conor did. He talked about pension reform. He talked about the opioid epidemic. And his opponent wanted to fight the culture wars. We can win here. We can win everywhere. And we are winning everywhere. There are 114 seats - 114 House seats, David - that are more competitive than Conor Lamb's district. That is a remarkable fact. And that's why the Democratic Party is back. And we're organizing in every district.

GREENE: Well, let me just ask you if I can, does that mean that you were not talking about the right issues in 2016 when you lost this district in the presidential race by 20 points?

PEREZ: Well, we didn't show up in 2016 in this district, David. We didn't feel the candidate. If there's a lesson to be learned - and Democrats are learning that lesson - is that when we field good candidates everywhere, when we organize everywhere, we can win. If you look at Hillary Clinton's margin of loss in Pennsylvania, her margin of loss overall in the state was less than her margin of loss in District 18 alone. Now, if you field a good candidate there, you may not have closed the gap entirely. But my goodness, one thing we've learned, and we've internalized this in the Virginia elections and elsewhere - it's called flooding the zone, making sure you have good candidates running everywhere.

GREENE: Well, you say then that Conor Lamb is the right kind of candidate. This is a candidate, we should say, who distanced himself from your own House leader, Nancy Pelosi, saying that he does not support her. What does that say about the party's national brand if you are saying that a critic of Nancy Pelosi is the right kind of candidate for the party at this moment?

PEREZ: Listen, this election wasn't about Nancy Pelosi. That's what the Republicans tried to do. This election was about good jobs. This election was about pension security for miners. This election was about...

GREENE: But it was also about a Democratic candidate saying that he does not support the House leader.

PEREZ: Well...

GREENE: I mean, Conor Lamb said that himself.

PEREZ: Absolutely. But when you at what the voters were caring about, they want to know who's going to fight for them. They want to know who's going to fight for their pension. They want to know who's going to fight for their right to organize a union. What we saw in this race was that the Obama-Trump voter came back to the Democratic Party. Organized labor was huge in this race, and they came behind Conor Lamb. We see this there. We see this all over the country.

I've had people say to me, David, well, you either focus on the diverse coalition that is the Democratic Party or you focus on white, working-class voters. I categorically reject that false choice. We're doing everything everywhere. We helped Doug Jones win in Alabama. We helped Keisha Lance Bottoms become the mayor of Atlanta and Vi Lyles become the mayor of Charlotte - two remarkable African-American women. And in a district that was 93 percent white, Conor Lamb won. We were proud to have invested in it. And he won and everybody else won because they were talking about the issues that mattered most to people. In Alabama...

GREENE: But let me just - I don't - if I may...

PEREZ: Sure.

GREENE: We don't have a whole lot of time. What do you tell Nancy Pelosi this morning if you were saying that the model candidate for Democrats is someone who criticized her and said that he does not support her?

PEREZ: Well, what I tell Nancy Pelosi is it was clear that the voters weren't concerned about who Nancy Pelosi was. The voters were concerned about what Conor Lamb was going to fight for. Republicans will always try to nationalize these races. And what we're doing, whether it's Alabama with Doug Jones, focusing on what he called kitchen-table issues, not fighting the culture wars, focusing on making sure children had access to health care - Conor Lamb is focused on those mine workers who want a pension, deserve a pension. And the Republicans are fighting to make sure they don't have that pension.

This is not an aberration yesterday. This is a trend, David, that has been taking place over the last year. We won special elections recently in Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire. And they were all in beet-red districts. The voters understand that we need a check and balance on this president. This is a very dangerous presidency. The culture of corruption that has engulfed this administration is terrible.

GREENE: But if I may...

PEREZ: And voters will punish Republicans who are going to continue to stand with Trump. We saw that yesterday, and we saw that in these special elections.

GREENE: Let me just finish by asking you, is there a tension, though, in the party? If this is the right kind of candidate who's going to help you going forward - pro-gun, distancing himself from Nancy Pelosi - you have a progressive wing that wants to focus on perhaps more social issues. You have some Democrats saying, no, don't focus on that, focus on the economy like Lamb did here. Is there tension in the party?

PEREZ: We have - I don't see tension. I see momentum. I mean, we have been winning elections all over this country. And we win elections by going into districts and focusing on the issues that people care about. We won four special elections last year in Oklahoma by focusing on education, which was the No. 1 issue there. Health care in Virginia was the No. 1 issue there. We focused on that, and we won.

GREENE: All right, Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, talking to us about that race in Pennsylvania yesterday. Thanks for joining us.

PEREZ: Pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.