Libertarian congressional candidate Drew Gray Miller may have played spoiler in Pennsylvania's down-to-the-wire special election last night.
Just after midnight, with all precincts reporting in the 18th district and some absentee ballots still being counted, Democratic candidate and former county prosecutor Conor Lamb had a 579-vote lead over the Republican, state Rep. Rick Saccone (R–Allegheny). Lamb declared victory early this morning, but Saccone has not yet conceded.
Meanwhile, Miller accumulated 1,372 votes—well more than the gap between the two major party candidates.
As the race tightened around 10 p.m., Miller took to Twitter to relish his newfound status as the guy who would be blamed for costing someone the election:
We're only a few hours away from me being the most hated man in America #PA18
— Drew Gray Miller (@DrewGrayMiller) March 14, 2018
Needless to say, Miller's 0.6 percent of the vote is not an outstanding showing. For comparison, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson received 2.4 percent of the statewide vote in 2016 and garnered at least 1.8 percent in each of the four counties that make up the 18th congressional district. Johnson also covered the spread in the presidential election, as Trump carried Pennsylvania by 1.1 percent.
Still, margins matter in close races. And this race was as close as they come.
"No party is entitled to anybody's vote," Drew Bingman, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania, told Reason on Tuesday night. "Maybe next time the Republican Party might consider somebody a little more libertarian."
Bingaman praised Lamb for running a smart campaign that at times eschewed the national Democratic Party's positions on issues like gun control. (Lamb's first campaign ad featured footage of him firing an AR-15 at a shooting range.) Bingaman was impressed that a candidate like Lamb can win in a district that, on paper at least, is stacked in the GOP's favor, and he took that as a welcoming sign for third-party candidates elsewhere.
It took until late in the evening for CNN and several other media outlets to add Miller's name to their list of results. (He was the only other candidate in the race.) This happened only after it became clear that the Libertarian could cover the spread between the top two. The typical narrative emerged, that Miller had somehow cost Saccone the race:
Drew Miller, the Libertarian, has more votes than Lamb's margin.
He may have been the difference in the race.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) March 14, 2018
"It's a step forward as far as I'm concerned to be considered a spoiler," Bingaman said, noting that it brought increased visibility to the candidate and party after the media largely ignored Miller's campaign in the lead-up to the vote.
Regardless of the reason for the outcome, Tuesday's result is certainly a disaster for Republicans. Trump won the district by 19 points in 2016. Outgoing Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned after an affair with a staffer became public, did not even face a Democratic opponent two years ago. Republicans made a bad result worse when they publicly bailed on their candidate in the final hours of the race. National GOP leaders dumped on Saccone to Politico and tried to pin an seemingly inevitable loss on his poor fundraising skills—as if money is the most important factor in a post-Trump political landscape—only to have Saccone come within a few hundred votes of victory.
After Tuesday night, the top two candidates in the race will go their separate ways—literally.
The 18th district was dissolved by the state Supreme Court in January, when it ruled Pennsylvania's congressional districts are an unconstitutional gerrymander. But those old lines were used for yesterday's special election, because it had already been scheduled. The new map, imposed by the state's high court (and subject to a challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court), splits the old 18th district into two new districts. Saccone resides in the new 14th district, and could run again for that seat in November. Lamb resides in the new 17th district, but so does another House incumbent: Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Allegheny).