Trump Visit Shows High Stakes for Pa. Special Election
President Trump’s visit to western Pennsylvania on Thursday is the latest sign of GOP concern over a special election that could fuel Democrats’ hopes for a wave election this fall -- or stifle that enthusiasm as Republicans seek to maintain their congressional majorities.
Unlike the battlegrounds in last year’s high-stakes special elections, Pennsylvania’s 18th District is mostly white, rural and filled with blue-collar workers; though Democrats maintain a registration advantage, it voted heavily for Trump in 2016.
The outcome of the March 13 face-off there provides a test case for whether Democrats can win back the working-class vote that fled the party in droves to support Trump, and whether Republicans can transfer the president’s popularity with his base and generate enough enthusiasm to limit losses this fall.
Republicans are hoping Thursday’s visit – and potential future events with Vice President Mike Pence – sparks enthusiasm with local voters, many of whom may not yet be aware of the election less than two months away. Though Trump’s trip is an official event at a local business to tout the new tax law, Republicans hope it will provide a shot in the arm to the campaign of state Rep. Rick Saccone, who will be in attendance.
“This is Trump country,” Saccone (pictured, at left) told RealClearPolitics in an interview. “I think he may be more popular now than he was when was elected. … People are calling and want to come see the president. They love him.”
For his part, Trump signaled he's all in for Saccone in a tweet Thursday morning:
Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13). Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2018
The Republican cavalry arrived outside Pittsburgh well before the president’s trip there. Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with Speaker Paul Ryan, opened two offices in the district this month and has 50 full-time volunteers knocking on doors, hoping to hit 250,000 before Election Day.
Citizens United, a GOP group run by David Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, endorsed Saccone on Wednesday, and Republicans maintain an edge in early advertising: Ending Spending, a Republican super PAC backed by billionaire Joe Ricketts, pledged $1 million earlier this month, and has been running ads both in favor of the Republican and against the Democrat, Conor Lamb.
Lamb’s campaign purchased its first television advertising this week in answer to the GOP spending; the new spot references his military and prosecutor background, and cuts a moderate tone, saying he will work with anyone and believes both parties need new leadership.
End Citizens United, a Democratic group that supports candidates who back campaign finance reform, endorsed Lamb on Wednesday. It cited the work the group had done raising money for Democrats in special elections last year, including $1.5 million in the highly contested race in Georgia’s 6th District and $300,000 in the Montana at-large race.
Some local Democrats worry that without more spending to back up Lamb’s campaign, they could get swamped by the heavy investment from Republicans, who are seeking to cast the nominee in the image of the national Democratic Party and Nancy Pelosi (though Lamb has said he would not support her as leader).
“Even if Conor’s fundraising continues to be as strong as it has been, he’s not going to out-raise all of those entities collectively,” said Mike Butler, a Democratic strategist in the area. “If he doesn’t get his own outside help on the field, the Democrats could certainly let it slip through their fingers.”
On the flip side, some Republicans in Washington have expressed frustration with Saccone’s fundraising – Politico reported last week that the White House political director told the candidate he wasn’t generating enough money. Saccone held a fundraiser Wednesday with Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of House Republicans’ campaign arm, and will return to Washington next month for a fundraiser with Ryan and members of House leadership, the New York Times reported and sources confirmed to RealClearPolitics.
Lamb was also in Washington on Wednesday for a fundraiser with members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, hosted by Rep. Mike Doyle, who represents a neighboring district. Doyle expressed confidence that regardless of GOP investments, Lamb would have the necessary funds to be competitive. He pointed to the End Citizens United endorsement, and said, “More to follow.”
“Conor will have the resources to do what he needs to do to win that race,” Doyle said.
Regardless of the resources, local and national Democrats are optimistic about their chances, in large part because of the candidate himself: Lamb is a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former assistant U.S. attorney who, Democrats say, is the right moderate fit for a district that has leaned heavily Republican. Rep. Seth Moulton, a rising Democratic star who has been recruiting veterans to run for Congress, called Lamb “extraordinary… exactly the kind of leader that we need in Washington.”
But Saccone argued that his own background “clearly distinguishes” him from his opponent. Saccone has a PhD in public and international affairs, is an Air Force veteran with counter-intelligence experience, has written two books on North Korea, and has served in the state legislature since 2011.
Still, Democrats in Washington and Pennsylvania take encouragement from the GOP investments in the race. On paper, it shouldn’t be competitive: Trump won the 18th by nearly 20 percentage points last year, and Rep. Tim Murphy – who, embroiled in scandal, resigned last year – didn’t face an opponent in his previous two re-election campaigns. When a Democrat last ran a campaign against Murphy in 2012, the challenger lost by nearly 30 percentage points.
But after sweeping off-year wins in November and a surprise victory in Alabama’s special Senate election in December, Democrats are riding high. Doyle, the Pennsylvania Democratic congressman, said a poll taken last week showed only a two-point Republican edge on a generic ballot – though he declined to discuss any further details of the survey.
“This is going to be a very tough race, but the idea that in a district where the Republicans have never had to spend a penny in a decade or so you see all the effort going on right now makes it pretty clear what’s going on in that district,” Doyle said. “They’re seeing what we’re seeing, and we’re seeing a competitive race.”
Some Republicans are privately concerned. One, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said Saccone is “very ideological” and “not ideal” as a fit for the district. But other Republicans dismissed any notion of panic, arguing they are simply leaving nothing to chance in an important race.
“This seat is critical and we have to win and the president is that type of guy,” said Rep. Mike Kelly, who represents another neighboring district. “He’s never taken anything for granted. He just doesn’t do it.”
Saccone himself dismissed the idea that Republicans are nervous about the race, calling it “Democratic nonsense” and saying he requested the campaign help from the White House and Republican leadership.
“The excitement is on our side, not their side,” Saccone said. “It’s just a wave of people that are just so excited for us to win this seat.
The election will also give Republicans and Democrats an early opportunity to test voters’ feelings about the success of the administration, since it comes more than a year after Trump took the reins and also after Republicans scored a major legislative victory with last year’s tax law.
For Democrats, it’s a chance to test whether they can win back working-class voters who fled the party in favor of Trump. Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said a lot of voters in the area supported Trump in 2016 based on promises to focus on manufacturing jobs and protect the U.S. steel and coal industries.
“The promises he made in this district have not come to fruition,” Kelly said.
For Republicans, it’ll be a similar test on economic issues with the same voters, but with the focus placed on their tax law. Mike Kelly touted the law and said most workers in the district will see lower taxes and increased take-home pay, which will drown out Democrats’ messaging.
“They’re whistling going by the grave yard,” Kelly said. “Blue-collar labor -- their party is the Republican Party. The Democrats have left them.”