Updated 1 hour ago
Western Pennsylvania’s pivotal special election race for Congress between Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone remained too close to call early Wednesday, but Lamb declared victory in a speech about 12:40 a.m.
With all of the congressional district’s 593 precincts reporting, Lamb had collected 49.8 percent of the votes counted compared with Saccone’s 49.6 percent, unofficial tallies showed. Only 579 votes separated the candidates.
Hundreds of absentee ballots remained uncounted.
Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr said his staffers were tallying the county’s 1,195 absentee ballots early Wednesday. He expected that work to continue until at least 3 a.m. CNN reported that another 203 absentee ballots remained uncounted in Greene County.
The emotions of supporters gathered at the candidates’ election-night parties hinged on results that trickled in incrementally and tightened throughout the night.
At the Youghiogheny Country Club in Elizabeth Township, Saccone emerged about 11:30 p.m. to deliver remarks for about two minutes. He thanked supporters and told them to head home since the final results wouldn’t be clear until Wednesday.
“We’re gonna keep fighting. Don’t give up! We’ll keep it up!” Saccone, 60, of Elizabeth Township said as he raised his arms and pumped his fists.
About the same time at the Hilton Garden Inn in Washington County’s Southpointe development, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Lamb’s performance in the race demonstrated the power of grassroots campaigning. He urged Lamb’s supporters to “hang in there” about another hour.
About an hour later, Lamb took the stage and told supporters, “It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it. You did it.”
Lamb praised the role of unions.
“Side by side with us each step of the way were the men and women of organized labor. Organized labor built Western Pennsylvania. Tonight they have reasserted their right to have a major part in our future,” said Lamb, 33, of Mt. Lebanon.
Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps officer with two Ivy League degrees, was considered a longshot when he emerged as the Democratic nominee to run in the race to replace former Congressman Tim Murphy, a Republican who resigned in October amid an extramarital scandal.
Murphy easily won eight elections and Donald Trump carried the district by 19 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, despite a Democratic voter registration edge of about 24,000.
While early polling heavily favored Saccone, the race tightened and money started pouring in, with outside groups spending more than $10 million to support Saccone and Lamb’s campaign collecting more than $3.8 million from donors. Many donors and political observers viewed the race as a referendum on Trump and a sign of how the parties might perform in midterm elections for the U.S. House and Senate this year.
The district includes parts of Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Greene counties.
Lamb campaigned as a moderate Democrat who supports unions and some of his party’s banner social programs, including the Affordable Care Act, but said he would work with Trump on issues important to the district. He distanced himself from the national party when he said he wouldn’t support re-electing Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader, despite Republicans’ efforts to brand him as a rubber stamp for Pelosi and a range of liberal policies, and shared views on issues such as guns and abortion that sometimes seemed to go against liberal orthodoxy.
He said during the campaign that he wants to expand background checks and improve mental health treatment to try to prevent gun violence but doesn’t support specific bans on assault rifles, extended magazines or other devices. He has said he would support women’s rights to have abortions despite his personal opposition as a Catholic to the procedure.
Lamb also called for increasing the minimum wage but said $15 per hour was too high, suggesting a figure closer to $10 per hour. He supported Trump’s new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports but opposed the GOP’s tax reforms, saying lawmakers could have given tax cuts to the middle class without adding the legislation’s estimated $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
Saccone campaigned as a conservative who would support the president’s agenda on cutting spending and taxes, repealing and replacing Obamacare, taking care of veterans and expanding the military, tightening border security, opposing abortion, strengthening Second Amendment rights and supporting nominations of conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices.
The president visited the region twice to stump for Saccone, most recently Saturday for a rally that drew about 5,000 people. National GOP figures such as Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway came to the region in support of Saccone.
Saccone’s campaign emphasized his service as an Air Force Office of Special Investigations officer in South Korea in the early 1990s and his experience representing an international organization building nuclear power plants in North Korea, saying he was qualified to serve on House foreign affairs committees.
As a state legislator, Saccone drew attention for supporting a proposal that would have allowed but not required schools to post the motto, “In God We Trust,” and would have declared 2012 the “Year of the Bible.”
The National Rifle Association endorsed Saccone, who has an A+ with the group based on his voting record as a state legislator.
Confusion over Pennsylvania’s congressional maps makes either candidate’s future representing the southwestern-most Pennsylvania district uncertain. The state Supreme Court put in place new boundaries for Pennsylvania’s 18 districts last month after ruling that the old map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to benefit Republicans. The court’s map puts both Lamb and Saccone outside what would become known as the 14th District.
State Republican leaders have challenged the court’s authority to implement its map, and are awaiting rulings from a federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tom Fontaine contributed to this report. Wes Venteicher and Natasha Lindstrom are Tribune-Review staff writers.