The outcome of the special election for U.S. Congress in District 18 — concentrated mostly in south suburban Pittsburgh but including the eastern suburbs in Monroeville and Westmoreland County — could be a bellwether for the 2018 midterms, with stakeholders across the country watching to see if the Democratic upstart candidate, Conor Lamb, might beat seasoned politician Republican Rick Saccone.
According to recent polls, the March 13 election to replace Republican Tim Murphy, who resigned last October in the wake of allegations that the pro-life politician had urged his mistress to seek an abortion, is neck and neck.
Despite President Donald Trump carrying the district by 20 points in 2016, a Monmouth University poll of likely voters showed that Saccone, a four-term state representative, enjoys just a 3 percent lead over Lamb, a former federal prosecutor.
That may be why Republicans are pouring money into this campaign, including the purchase by four conservative groups of $4.7 million dollars in television and radio ads for Saccone, according to The Washington Post. The National Republican Congressional Committee also “has spent or reserved $2.4 million” on Saccone’s campaign, according to CNN.
By contrast, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee bought a $224,000 television ad for Lamb last month, but is no longer running the ad.
Lamb and Saccone faced off during a debate last week hosted by KDKA, and both candidates met with potential constituents at town hall-style meetings at the South Hills Jewish Community Center hosted by South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh and the JCC, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council and the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement. Both JCC town hall meetings were closed to the press.
A third candidate, Libertarian Drew Miller, was not invited to the debate, nor was he invited to appear at a JCC town hall event.
At Lamb’s JCC event, the Democratic candidate was grilled on his support for Israel, according to several attendees. The queries came in response to an article by the Washington Free Beacon reporting that Lamb had espoused anti-Israel sentiments while a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Feb. 12, the website reported that in 2002, Lamb accused Israel of “terrorism” and of intentionally attacking innocent civilians in Gaza, in a post on his college student newspaper’s website.
Lamb said he does not recall making those comments and told the Chronicle that he is a steadfast supporter of Israel.
“There’s no question where I stand when it comes to Israel,” Lamb, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and military veteran, wrote in an email. “When you’re in the Marines, you learn to know who your friends are. Israel is our friend, one of our closest and most important allies in the world, and I will always support Israel. As for these comments, I don’t recognize them, and I have absolutely no memory of them.”
Representatives of J Street, the left-wing Jewish advocacy group which has endorsed Lamb, said the organization stands by the Democratic candidate regardless of comments attributed to him in the Daily Pennsylvanian.
“Conor will speak for himself, but he told me that he could not recall what he had written as a freshman at Penn 16 years ago,” said Victor Kovner, co-chair of J Street PAC. “He has made clear to us, however, that he is a strong supporter of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and of active U.S. diplomacy toward that goal.”
Likewise, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, a national organization that supports candidates who endorse those domestic issues that are important to the Jewish community, and who support Israel and a two-state solution, is still “comfortable” with Lamb, despite the online comments, said Ron Klein, chair of the JDCA.
“If he said these things today, I might have a different view,” Klein said, adding that some JDCA colleagues have had “multiple conversations” with Lamb’s campaign, and the Democratic candidate’s positions are “consistent” with the organization on such issues as the environment, health care, and “Israel’s right to exist as a homeland of the Jewish people.”
Scott Feigelstein, director of the Pennsylvania/S. New Jersey office of the Republican Jewish Coalition, had a different take on Lamb’s 2002 comments.
“Lamb’s attack against Israel in the middle of the Second Intifada was and is disgraceful,” Feigelstein said in a statement. “Nearly 1,000 Israeli civilians were murdered in the Second Intifada by members of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. Israeli forces seeking out terrorist cells and infrastructure went to great lengths to protect the Palestinian civilians among whom the terrorists hid.
“Lamb’s accusations are untrue and unacceptable,” added Feigelstein. “The people of the 18th district deserve better.”
In his statement to the Chronicle, Lamb favored strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“Israel has proven that it can and will protect its people,” Lamb wrote. “And it is in America’s interest to ensure that they can continue to do so. I support robust foreign and military aid to Israel…Foreign aid to Israel is critical to Israel’s security and very survival — but it’s more than that. It’s an investment in our own security as well, as Israel stands on the front line against many of the same forces who threaten U.S. personnel and interests abroad.”
For his part, Saccone also identifies as a strong supporter of Israel.
“Israel’s security is vital to the security of the United States,” he wrote in an email. “I have spent time in Israel and the Middle East and understand the nature of the region on a firsthand basis. Israel is the only democracy in an already volatile region and without it the world would be much a more dangerous place.”
Saccone identified Palestinian terrorism as an obstacle to peace.
“Peace can only happen when both sides are willing to sit at the table in good faith,” the Republican candidate said. “The continued support of terrorism by the Palestinian Authority will not make this process easier. As a former diplomat stationed in North Korea I understand the difficulty of trying to make a deal when there is seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two sides.”
In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and teachers, both candidates have come out as pro-gun rights, with neither calling for a ban on assault weapons.
“I prosecuted violent crimes and gun trafficking as an assistant U.S. Attorney, and that experience showed me that one of the most effective things we can do right now is to strengthen our background check system,” Lamb said. “Our system is full of gaps and loopholes that too often allow guns to get into the hands of people who aren’t legally allowed to have them.”
Saccone emphasized dealing with the problem of mass shooters from both a mental health perspective and through the enforcement of existing gun laws.
“Like my opponent, I support enforcing the laws that are currently on the books,” Saccone wrote. “I think that events like these are signs of a societal issue as well as a mental health problem. I support seeing what can be done to prevent these attacks from a mental health perspective.”
The Libertarian candidate, Drew Gray Miller, identifies as “a political centrist,” according to the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania’s website. Described as a “fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate,” Miller is a former legal counsel to the majority whip of the Pennsylvania Senate.
“The more the Republican and Democratic politicians work against each other, the weaker our nation becomes,” Miller said in a statement. “In the end, respect and compromise will unite us, bringing new opportunity and advancement to all citizens. As an independent, I will focus on diligently working for you to ensure that every citizen has a voice and a seat at the table.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.