Updated 12:57 a.m. | A hotly contested special election in southwestern Pennsylvania was too close to call late Tuesday night. Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone were neck and neck as votes were still being counted.
Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former prosecutor, led Saccone, a 60-year-old Air Force veteran, 49.8 percent to 49.6 percent — a difference of 579 votes — with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, Lamb took to the stage at his election night rally and declared victory.
“It took a little bit longer than we thought, but we did it,” he told the crowd.
But absentee ballots were still being counted in two of the four counties in the 18th District. Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr said on CNN that it would take several hours to count the roughly 1,195 absentee ballots. The Greene County elections division did not return a request for comment, but the county reportedly had around 200 absentee ballots to count.
Watch: Three Things to Watch In Pennsylvania’s Special Election
Lamb specifically thanked unions, which organized a coordinated campaign to mobilize their members to back the Democrat. With a history of coal mines and steel mills, as well as scores of workers in building trades, the 18th District includes roughly 80,000 union members.
"Side by side with us, at each step of the way, were the men and women of organized labor," Lamb said. "...Tonight they have reasserted their right to have a major part in our future."
Even though the race was not officially called, national Democrats were also claiming victory.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman Ben Ray Luján said in a statement late Tuesday night that he looked forward to Lamb serving in Congress. And he said the race spelled trouble for the GOP in the upcoming midterms.
“These results should terrify Republicans,” Luján said. “Despite their home field advantage and the millions of dollars outside groups poured into this race, Republicans found that their attacks against Conor, including their unpopular tax scam, were not believable.”
Democrats are targeting districts less Republican than the 18th. Former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy held the southwestern Pennsylvania seat for 15 years, until he resigned last year amid scandal. Murphy, who opposed abortion rights, reportedly suggested his mistress get an abortion.
The race attracted millions of dollars in outside spending, with GOP groups dropping more than $10 million in an attempt to pull Saccone across the finish line. Democrats argued that the tightening race proved Republican messaging like touting their tax overhaul and tying Lamb to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not resonate with voters.
Republicans, beginning last week, had already started to blame Saccone, arguing that he was an unimpressive fundraiser who ran an ineffective campaign. Lamb raised more than four times as much money as his opponent.
But Matt Gorman, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement that the group expected Saccone to win the race.
“This race is too close to call and we’re ready to ensure that every legal vote is counted,” Gorman said. “Once they are, we’re confident Rick Saccone will be the newest Republican member of Congress.”
Saccone addressed the crowd at his election night party, expressing confidence he would win.
“We’re still fighting the fight. It’s not over yet,” Saccone said. “We’re going to fight all the way to the end.”
The winner’s victory will be short-lived, since both candidates have to turn around to file for full term in Congress by March 20. The state Supreme Court threw out the existing congressional map in January as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, and drew new lines. The new map is still being challenged in federal court, but that challenge is expected to fail.
Saccone is already circulating petitions to run in the reconfigured district, which is numbered the 14th and became even more Republican under the new map.
Lamb has said he intends to run for a full term in Congress following the special election, but he has not specified which district he will run in. Some Democratic operatives expect him to run against GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus in a neighboring district, which the new map made more Democratic.