Who didn’t think this would go to a recount? After all, neither party has much to do at the moment except fundraise, and their lawyers have even less to do. The gap in the PA-18 special election practically begs for a challenge. Conor Lamb leads in the contest by 627 ballots, roughly a 0.27% lead. That’s within range for recounts, even if it might be still a stretch:
With the last batch of absentee ballots counted, Lamb, a 33-year-old former prosecutor and first-time candidate, saw his edge over Republican Rick Saccone shrink slightly, to 627 votes out of more than 224,000 cast, according to unofficial results.
The four counties in the Pittsburgh-area district reported they had about 375 uncounted provisional, military and overseas ballots. They have seven days to count the provisional ballots, and the deadline to receive military and overseas ballots is next Tuesday.
In some states, a gap that small would prompt an automatic recount. In Pennsylvania, though, the candidates have to make that request and take the political blowback. With a gap that small, though, a recount request is reasonable, even if it probably won’t make much difference. Recounts usually only result in very small changes, as the vote-counting infrastructure in American elections is highly reliable.
What are the chances that a recount could swing the PA-18 election to Rick Saccone? They’re not zero, but the odds are almost that low. A recount in Wisconsin after the 2016 presidential election resulted in an additional 837 ballots added to the total, but that was out of 2.98 million ballots cast statewide for a change rate of 0.028%. And the end result didn’t actually change the relative position of the candidates at all; Trump ended up netting a pickup of 131 votes, in fact. The vote total in PA-18 is less than a tenth of Wisconsin’s 2016 recount, and the rate of change would have to be ten times better and all in Saccone’s favor.
In other words, a recount is probably not much more than pro forma at this point. But Republicans might have another project for the lawyers as well:
Separately, Republicans mulled legal action, according to a person familiar with the deliberations. This person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. …
Complaints could include that party lawyers were prevented from observing the counting of some absentee ballots, voting machines erroneously recorded votes from Lamb, and voters were confused by some information from the state elections website.
That’s not likely to get far either. A recount would actually resolve the first complaint, while the second and third have no remedy except a do-over, which a judge would be highly unlikely to order without evidence of malicious tampering. However, it could set the stage for a challenge after the recount, which would allow attorneys to argue over every ballot for spoilage and/or voter intent. That is what happened in Minnesota in the 2008 Senate election that flipped the election from Norm Coleman to Al Franken. However, that came from a flip of 537 ballots from almost 2.9 million cast for a shift of 0.0186% — again, far below what Saccone would need.
A challenge would be a massive investment in resources and would almost certainly take several months to complete. Republicans might feel compelled to do it because of the bloody nose the party got in a race it should have won, but that’s not just throwing good money after bad, it may overestimate what the race means. In my column for The Week, I offer three reasons this election shouldn’t necessarily be considered a harbinger for November. The third in particular matters most:
Rick Saccone was a well-known Republican in this district, but he made some key mistakes, especially by highlighting the “right to work” message in a union-heavy constituency. However, the key point about candidates in this race was how different Conor Lamb is from mainstream Democratic Party messaging. Lamb refused to criticize Trump, for instance, declared his support for the Second Amendment, hailed the economic benefits of the tax cut (if not the cut itself), and distanced himself from Nancy Pelosi.
House Speaker Paul Ryan later joked that a conservative won the election in PA-18. He’s not that far off the mark. Democrats want to make the midterms a referendum on Trump, gun control, impeachment, and their opposition to Trump’s tax cuts. It’s tough to see Lamb’s win as a harbinger for Democrats when he won by contradicting some of the campaign message they plan to use. Lamb had the advantage of running while Democrats could tune their message specifically to help him out. Would he have won in November with Democrats hammering those themes on national ad campaigns and talking-head shows?
Don’t mistake this for a sunny take on PA-18’s election. Republicans should have won that election, and might have with a better candidate, a better message, or both. Trump’s rally fell short of bringing victory, which should be the most concerning aspect of the loss for the GOP. Historically speaking, the party out of power usually wins House seats in the first midterm of any president, and Democrats are certainly in range for enough of a swing to regain control of the lower chamber. However, all of that was just as true before the special election, and is no more and no less true on this side of it.
I’ll have more on the other reasons later. In the meantime, don’t get hopes up over a recount, which is almost certainly going to do nothing more than delay the inevitable.