Democrat Conor Lamb declared victory this week with only a few hundred more votes than his opponent in the shale country congressional race in southwest Pennsylvania. The seat has been held by a Republican for more than a decade, but the results may be unofficial for weeks.
Lamb, a Pittsburgh native and former federal prosecutor, initially has taken 49.84% of the vote. He barely edged out Republican opponent, state Rep. Rick Saccone, who took 49.56% of the votes cast in the 18th District, which includes parts of Allegheny, Washington, Greene and Westmoreland counties. President Trump won the district by 20 percentage points in 2016.
Republicans have alleged voting problems and requested that machines be impounded, forecasting a possible recount. Some media outlets already have declared Lamb the winner, but there is not a consensus. The returns are still unofficial and could remain that way for weeks. Several steps must occur before the results may be challenged in court or a recount can happen.
The candidates faced off in a race to fill the seat vacated by former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned after being embroiled in scandal. Whether Lamb or Saccone wins, he would only serve to the end of the year, facing reelection during the midterms in November. A battle is also unfolding in federal court over the state’s congressional map, which could be far different by then.
For energy industry onlookers curious about what the race means for natural gas extraction in the region, it seems very little is at stake. Both candidates strongly support the energy industry in the state. In a way, the two men are compelled to. Washington and Greene counties were among Pennsylvania’s top natural gas producing locales last year, while both Allegheny and Westmoreland host significant shale operations as well.
The district, largely rural and part suburban, is also to the south of more liberal enclaves in Pittsburgh and stretches toward the border with other shale bastions in northern West Virginia. Lamb has straddled a sticky line, eschewing some of the positions held by those further to the left in his party on issues like gun control and minimum wage. He’s voiced support for high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
“I support robust and responsible energy development,” Lamb’s campaign platform on his website reads. “Natural gas extraction is creating and supporting a lot of good, middle-class jobs in our region, and I want more of those jobs for our people.”
Saccone, who at one point on the campaign trail dubbed himself “Trump before Trump was Trump,” has fought aggressively against taxes and spending. He has in the past bashed repeated bipartisan efforts to implement a natural gas severance tax in the state in the face of budget woes, saying a few years ago that an extraction tax is “one of the most demagogued and misunderstood issues” facing the state legislature. He too has hailed the industry’s contributions to Pennsylvania.
Saccone also has pitched himself as a champion for coal, blaming much of the industry’s decline on burdensome federal regulations. Lamb, on the other hand, has said that while government should not impede energy development, it must still hold bad actors liable and protect the environment responsibly.
Both parties flooded the airwaves in the region in the days and weeks leading up to the election, which has attracted both national and international attention. But energy, perhaps because it’s long been a part of the region’s fabric, factored little into the news coverage and rhetoric of the campaign.