MT. LEBANON, Pa. (AP) — Democrats claimed victory Tuesday after a two-month campaign for a vacant state Senate seat in politically divided suburban Pittsburgh where the sides tested some national themes ahead of 2020’s presidential election in a critical battleground state narrowly won by President Donald Trump.
The seat had been largely controlled by Republicans the past half-century, but the district is viewed as increasingly friendly to Democrats in territory that party strategists now view as something of a bellwether.
The winner, Democrat Pam Lovino, told her enthusiastic victory party at a union hall at Pittsburgh’s western edge that the district “is blue again” and worked her way through the crowd, hugging supporters.
In a statement, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said Lovino’s victory shows Democrats “have momentum in key races and swing states across the country as the American people resoundingly reject Trump’s agenda and the Republican legislators across the country who follow his lead.”
With more than 90% of precincts reporting before 10:30 p.m., Lovino led Republican D. Raja by 4,100 votes or 54% to 46%.
Raja called her to concede, a spokesman said. Lovino’s victory will not change the balance of power in Pennsylvania’s Senate, where Republicans hold a 26-21 majority. Lovino’s victory is somewhat short-lived: the seat is up again in next year’s election.
Lovino was helped by universal support from labor unions and the grassroots volunteerism and networks that boosted Democrat Conor Lamb to a victory in the area in a special election for Congress almost 13 months ago.
Lovino’s victory also reflects longtime Republican strongholds near the Steel City creeping left and areas heavy with union households shifting back after a rightward swing in recent decades.
The campaign was watched by some party strategists for some hint of how voters feel about their president, even though the race itself attracted little attention from inside the district. Turnout was on track to reach about 30%, although that is relatively high for a special election in Pennsylvania.
In 2016, the district helped Trump become the first Republican since 1988 to capture Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes. Trump won it by 6 percentage points, even though Democrats have a registration edge, a legacy of socially conservative union members who have often voted Republican the past two or three decades.
But Democrats say their polling showed that Trump’s popularity in the district had slid. They even made an effort to tie Raja to Trump, sending a mailer that quoted Raja’s praise of Trump, showed a shadow outline of Trump’s face behind a side view photo of Raja’s face and questioned: “Who does Raja really side with?”
To a great extent, the campaign focused on the usual fare in Pennsylvania’s elections — the state’s booming natural gas industry, abortion rights, gun rights, jobs, and the minimum wage — and some local issues, like a fight between two health care giants.
The candidates — Raja is the chief executive of information technology consulting firm he helped start, and Iovino is a Navy veteran who held a top U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs post — largely hewed to party-line stances, and Iovino shied away from attacking Trump.
Republicans especially had sought to stoke fervor by injecting national issues.
A Republican mailer in recent days linked Raja to Trump, saying “a vote for Raja is a vote for President Trump’s agenda.”
In the campaign’s final hours Monday, the state Republican Party issued a robocall from Donald Trump Jr., urging listeners to vote for Raja and saying Lovino has a “liberal and extreme agenda” and supports “radical policies like New York’s late-term law, socialist medicine and the government taking more of our money.”
One of Raja’s attack ads on TV accused Lovino of supporting “taxpayer-funded third-trimester late-term abortions,” while another waved at the Green New Deal and said Lovino has “teamed up with extremists who want to stop our growth with billions in new energy taxes.”
Lovino campaign strategist David Marshall said Republicans had run a “fact-free” campaign, and that Lovino never voiced support for the Green New Deal or late-term abortions.