CANONSBURG, Pa. — The Democrat and Republican in a special House election in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Trump country were divided by a few hundred votes in a race that was too close to call early Wednesday — an ominous sign for Republicans in a district that Donald Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points.
With 100 percent of votes cast Tuesday counted, Conor Lamb, a Democrat, was clinging to a 579-vote lead over Republican Rick Saccone. But a few thousand absentee ballots had not yet been counted. And it was possible that a legal battle could ensue.
House Democrats did not wait for a final count to claim victory. House Republicans were already talking up a legal challenge. But no matter the outcome, Lamb’s strong showing demonstrated that the Trump-inspired energy propelling Democrats across the country is not confined to liberal-leaning regions. Republicans were left with the prospect of defending a far broader section of districts this fall than they had hoped.
A first-time candidate and former Marine, Lamb, 33, forced Republicans to pour more than $10 million into a southwestern Pennsylvania district where Democrats did not even field a candidate in the past two congressional elections.
Yet whoever wins here may not hold the seat for very long. The state Supreme Court ruled in January that Pennsylvania’s House map was gerrymandered unlawfully and redrew congressional boundaries that may force either candidate to run in a new district in November.
The contest evolved into a test for both parties in Trump country. Republicans scrambled to prop up Saccone, a 60-year-old state representative, mindful that a failure here would send signals well beyond Pittsburgh.
Just three months after suffering an embarrassing defeat in the special Senate election in Alabama, Trump and his administration once more put their prestige on the line on friendly terrain.
The president appeared twice with Saccone, most recently at an airport rally Saturday night in which Trump mocked the Democrat as “Lamb the sham.” But Trump also delivered a rambling, 75-minute speech that careened away from the matter at hand.
Republican officials began criticizing Saccone’s candidacy well before the returns were counted in a district where the anti-abortion Republican previously holding the seat, Tim Murphy, was forced to resign after a woman with whom he was having an affair said he pressed her to have an abortion.
Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns are New York Times writers.