Update as of 9:30 a.m. Wednesday: Lamb’s lead expanded after Washington County absentee ballots results came. But county election officials could take weeks to review the results and make them official.
Voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th District cast their ballots Tuesday for Conor Lamb or Rick Saccone, but election workers couldn’t count absentee ballots fast enough to declare a winner before dawn.
But at Lamb’s election party, the Democrat — who held a lead, though no major outlet called the election — gave a victory speech to a crowd of supporters at 12:45 a.m. Wednesday, after being introduced as “Congressman-elect Conor Lamb.”
“It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it,” he said, confident in his lead, despite hundreds of absentee ballots being uncounted.
NBC News projected a Lamb Wednesday morning, but the Associated Press says the race is still too close to call. Saccone, the Republican, has not conceded.
Lamb held a 579-vote lead Wednesday at 1 a.m., but absentee ballots remained uncounted in Washington and Greene counties. Saccone was waiting for the absentee votes to come in from the county which favored him in live voting. Experts said it seemed unlikely — but possible — that he could overcome Lamb’s lead. Out of more than 224,000 votes, Lamb’s 49.8 percent gives him just a .2 percent lead.
The district — which includes parts of Allegheny, Washington, Westmoreland and Greene counties — is a heavy Republican district that favored President Donald Trump in 2016 by 20 points. The winner of the race will represent the district for less than one year as both candidates live outside the newly drawn 18th District.
Lamb, a 33-year-old running as a conservative Democrat, and Saccone, a 60-year-old Republican who ran a campaign embracing the president’s agenda, are fighting for a U.S. House seat vacated after Tim Murphy resigned in October.
In his speech, Lamb thanked labor unions, a group that gave major support to the candidate.
“Side by side with us, each step of the way, we’re the men and women of organized labor,” he said to the loudest cheer of his speech. “Organized labor built Pennsylvania.”
That Lamb even ran a competitive race was an achievement according to many of his supporters, who haven’t been represented by a Democrat since 2003. But the election party in Canonsburg was tense around midnight, with supporters hoping Lamb could hang onto his narrow lead.
“I’m biting my nails,” said Emilio Abate, 67, who drove to the party from Washington, D.C. A Washington County native and former union organizer, Abate supported Lamb for his strong labor stance.
Saccone’s supporters were just as anxious — and although some said they were ready to get some sleep, Mike McMullen, a political organizer and former Trump delegate for the 2016 election, wasn’t.
“I’ll definitely be up all night,” he said.
Unlike Lamb, Saccone addressed the crowd at his election party late Tuesday, telling supporters to head home and get some rest to prepare for the big days ahead.
“We’re gonna be working late into the night,” Saccone said. “We’re gonna keep fighting.”
Back at Lamb’s camp, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had the opposite message for the crowd, urging them to stick around for the absentee ballots to come in.
“Still a little bit more fun to have,” Fitzgerald said.
Before the late-night drama, Lamb supporter Giulio Magrini watched the early results come in with his wife, Barbara. They came to the party because they “love and support Conor” and wanted to see the district flip to a Democrat.
“[Lamb would] finally bring righteous representation to this district,” the 69-year-old from Scott Township said. “The district deserves it.”
The race was widely billed as a referendum on Trump and a race that would predict the results of the midterm elections in November. But many supporters, like Saccone voter Steve Barclay, cited the candidates’ ability to represent their interests as the deciding factor.
“I personally think he has what it takes to lead this part of the country,” Barclay, 60, said.
Douglas Peer, a 22-year-old Pitt alum, also picked his candidate based on his ability to represent the district. Peer canvassed for Lamb for the past month, urging his fellow voters to turn out for the Democrat who opposed gun control and party leader Nancy Pelosi.
“He’s the perfect kind of Democrat we need to run this district,” he said. “He’s willing to be an independent voice.”
As it got late and the results were close, Peer said he was nervous, but noted that Lamb’s performance is still impressive in the Conservative district.
Though some voters focused on local issues, Trump was hard to avoid for many others. After voting in Mt. Lebanon, Joel Sansone, 60, said a Lamb victory would “send a message” to the rest of the country and the president.
Also voting in Mt. Lebanon, Mary Roman, 48, said it’d be “nice to see Trump not get what he wants.” The Lamb supporter liked Lamb’s moderate stance, calling him a “reasonable fellow.”
“I like the fact that he is personally pro-life,” she said. “But I wish he was stronger on gun control.”
Allegheny County election officials received some reports of citizens showing up to their polling places to vote, only to be told they didn’t live in the 18th District. Michelle Abbott, 30, lives in downtown Pittsburgh, outside the district, but she wasn’t one of those unaware voters. She still supported Lamb, citing his willingness to compromise and moderate stance, even though her beliefs are further left.
At midnight, she was debating whether to stick around to watch CNN announce the final absentee results.
“I should try to do the math on pencil and paper before I go to bed,” she said.