After special election, what does future hold for 18th District winner?

March 27, 2018 GMT

Once either Conor Lamb or Rick Saccone wins Tuesday’s special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, it becomes anyone’s guess whether the district at the center of the multimillion-dollar race will even exist by the May 15 primary.

Should the new congressional districts drawn by the state Supreme Court hold up to legal challenges, come primary election day neither Lamb, of Mt. Lebanon, nor Saccone, of Elizabeth, will live in the new 14th District that takes in the bulk of the one they are running to represent.

Nonetheless, campaign finance reports suggest the candidates and the Super PACs backing them may spend as much as $20 million seeking a seat that will be moot next year.

Two factors are at work, said political scientist David Chambers, an associate professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“Everything was thrown into disarray by the controversy over the (congressional) maps,” he said. “Nobody is sure what will happen, so the attitude is, ‘We better play the game as we understand it.’”

Moreover, the race has become a proxy for President Trump and Republicans looking to hold their majority in Congress and Democrats eager to steal a longtime Republican seat in advance of this year’s midterm elections.

“That’s why the race is being watched nationally. It’s all about bragging rights,” Chambers said.

Democratic justices on the state Supreme Court ruled a 2011 congressional map drawn by GOP lawmakers to be in violation of the state constitution and replaced it last month with their own version.

A three-member panel of federal judges in Harrisburg heard arguments Friday regarding a petition from Republican congressmen and legislative leaders seeking to halt implementation of the new map. Should they find that they have standing to act, any decision would have automatic standing for an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. has not yet ruled on a second attempt by state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, and House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, to have the court-drawn congressional map overturned.

Alito last month rejected a similar attempt by the two top elected Republicans in Pennsylvania.

Political observers say confusion over the maps, coupled with retirements and resignations that have left Pennsylvania with an unprecedented six open congressional seats, has made the state ground zero in the eye of a brewing storm for control of Congress in the midterm elections.

Shifting districts

With the countdown to the March 20 deadline for filing congressional nominating petitions for the primary well underway, interested candidates on both sides of the aisle are weighing their options.

For now, the Department of State is accepting petitions only on the new districts.

Joe Sterns is a GOP political consultant who is working on Art Halvorson’s primary campaign in the new 13th Congressional District. He said Halvorson has been fortunate. His Bedford County home was in the middle of the old 9th District, where he ran in 2016. It remains in the middle of the new 13th District that includes Adams, Bedford, Blair, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties along with portions of Cambria and Westmoreland counties.

“As of now, Capt. Halvorson is OK. He’s still in an open district. But some other iterations of the maps they’ve had would have had him against Mike Kelly (the Republican incumbent from Butler County) or Glenn Thompson (a Republican incumbent from State College),” Sterns said. “It has created some uncertainty for candidates.”

It pushed state House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, out of the 9th District, where he had announced his intent to seek the Republican nomination after incumbent Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, announced his retirement.

Reed now lives in the 15th District. He told the Indiana Gazette last week he is circulating petitions to run there. That would pit him against Thompson, the five-term Republican incumbent from State College.

Campaigning in the old 18th District, Saccone called the new map a political construct from the Democrats who control the state’s high court. He said he is circulating petitions and intends to run in the new 14th District, even though he will live in the heavily Democratic new 18th District — which centers on Pittsburgh and is now represented by longtime Democratic incumbent Mike Doyle.

The new 14th District, by contrast, takes in much of the old 18th, with the addition of Fayette County.

“They moved the line (for the new 14th) one mile from my home,” Saccone said.

Meanwhile, Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party’s nod in the special election, confirmed she is circulating petitions to run in the new 14th District. She has made no formal announcement.

Those filing petitions for the May primary have until March 27 to withdraw from the ballot.

Crossing lines

Unlike many elected officials who are required to live in the district they represent, members of congress are required only to live in the same state as the district they seek to represent.

A Washington Post survey last year found 22 members of Congress, or about 5 percent of House members, lived outside the districts that elected them. Many, the Post found, were longtime members of Congress whose homes had been moved into a new district by the redistricting that is required by law every 10 years.

Lamb, the Democrat whose home would be in the new 17th District, was hesitant to discuss his plans beyond Tuesday’s special election. He said he will let the mapping lawsuits play out before making any commitments on the future.

“I made a promise the people of the 18th District,” he said.

If he opted to run in the new district his Mt. Lebanon home is located in, he would face incumbent Republican Keith Rothfus, who now represents the 12th Congressional District.

Rothfus, who railed against the new map, has joined seven other Pennsylvania Republican congressmen in asking a federal court to uphold the 2011 districts in which they were elected.

“This (congressional redistricting) should be in the Legislature, that’s the way it was designed, and I think the federal courts should take a look at this,” Rothfus recently told the Tribune-Review. “There are fundamental constitutional issues at stake here.”

“This is the first time in U.S. history that this has happened this deep into the cycle,” said GOP strategist Charlie Gerow, CEO of Quantum Communications. “The courts have created chaos. The potential outcomes are innumerable. It’s incredibly unfair to the candidates and the voters.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib