With just hours to go before polls close in Pennsylvania's closely watched special congressional election, Republicans are savaging their candidate.
With just hours to go before polls close in Pennsylvania's closely watched special congressional election, Republicans are already pointing fingers at their nominee, whose inferior candidacy they are blaming for what they increasingly believe will be a defeat.
"Conor Lamb is gonna win," a national Republican close to the race conceded to Business Insider, speaking about the Democratic candidate. "I think it's been a race, since day one, about candidate disparity."
In the race's final days, polling has shown Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone in a district President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016 — and that a Republican has held for the better part of two decades.
Saccone has downplayed that polling, saying Monday that "everywhere I go, it’s 100-to-1 for Rick Saccone.”
But the same polling showed that Trump is still relatively popular in the district, leading Republicans to bring out the knives for Saccone.
"I think there's a lot of truth to what people have said that the disparity between the candidates is having an outsized impact on what will ultimately be the outcome of this race," another Republican strategist close to the race told Business Insider. "Conor Lamb is exciting, he does break the mold a little bit. And he does sound like the kind of Democrat that your typical voter in that sort of district could support."
"Saccone, unfortunately just has never been able to excite people in the district," this strategist said. "His shortcomings were noticed by a handful of strategists early on."
Lamb has dominated the fundraising battle against Saccone in the special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, which Republicans highlighted as a significant problem for their candidate. Meanwhile, several Republicans involved in the race said their recent polling showed Lamb with a slight lead.
Outside groups have sought to make up the fundraising difference by injecting money and support into the race. The Congressional Leadership Fund, for example, provided 50 door knockers and spent more than $3.5 million on the election effort.
"It should serve as a wake-up call to everybody," one Republican strategist said of the race. "In this environment, it's going to be challenging. And so now more than ever, these candidates matter, these campaigns matter. You need to be running good, strong campaigns, you need to be raising money. This will be a wake-up call — win or lose for Republicans — this should be a wake-up call no matter what the result is."
This strategist said that, based on the polling available, it's clear Trump was not the reason for why the race in a traditionally Republican district has been so tight.
"The president and the president's policies are popular in the district," they said. "This is a race about candidate disparity and the campaign. You had an A+ candidate running against an F candidate. You can't have that no matter what district in this environment this year. It's just not going to work."
A separate Republican who worked on Trump's campaign said the results of the race, which looks as if it will end up in a tight finish, will be more about Lamb being "a really good candidate" than Saccone "being a bad candidate."
"And I think there is one saving grace for Republicans coming out of this election — Conor Lamb is a unicorn candidate, and there aren't many Democrats running across the country who will mirror him," they said.
Lamb is a young former Marine and federal prosecutor. Saccone serves as a state legislator who is an Air Force veteran.
Rick Tyler, who formerly served as communications director for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, told Business Insider that a loss for Saccone would present a "stark warning for Republicans."
"Despite the expected protestations that Saccone was a terrible candidate, the GOP will have to account for the fact that the president’s endorsement — even in a district that he won by twenty points, and even though the President has said he wants to do more candidate endorsement rallies — will not help Republican candidates," he said.
Terry Sullivan, who served as campaign manager for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, said there is a "definite headwind facing Republicans right now."
"The fact that the race is even close in a district where Republicans historically win by roughly 20 points illustrates how challenging the environment is," he said. "There has been a lot of talk about how much better a candidate the Democrats have in the race, but it still shouldn’t be close in a district that is that pro-Republican."