At Rally, Trump Goes All In on Pa. Special Election

At Rally, Trump Goes All In on Pa. Special Election
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
At Rally, Trump Goes All In on Pa. Special Election
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
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MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – President Trump on Saturday threw the full weight of his support behind the Republican candidate in a critical special election here, hoping to spark enthusiasm among his supporters and drive them to the polls Tuesday to avoid an embarrassing defeat for the party. 

The election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District has become a flash point for both parties eight months before this year’s midterms. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the district by nearly 20 points, but the Democratic candidate is running neck and neck with state Rep. Rick Saccone in the final days of the campaign, a potential sign of both Democratic enthusiasm and apathy among GOP voters.

Trump’s visit was an attempt to reverse those trends and help put Saccone over the top in a district that many Republicans concede should not be so competitive. But it was carries risk for Trump, who could face questions about his ability to generate support for down-ballot candidates if Saccone loses despite campaigning alongside the president.

 “Do me a favor. Get out on Tuesday. Vote for Rick Saccone and we can leave right now,” Trump said of the nominee, who has a narrow lead in several polls but trails in one.

His visit was just the latest signal of how important this race has become for the party. Republican outside groups have spent more than $10 million on Saccone’s behalf, Trump held another event in the area earlier this year, and Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials have also visited.

Despite that, GOP officials and strategists are increasingly concerned that Saccone could lose to Conor Lamb, a former prosecutor and Marine veteran who Republicans admit is a strong candidate. Lamb has outraised his opponent significantly and walked a moderate line that has helped deflect attempts to link him to the national Democratic Party.

Trump did everything he could to tie himself to Saccone on Saturday night. He invited him on stage at the end of the rally, calling him a “good person” and a “very hard worker.” Trump didn’t downplay the significance of the race, saying the whole world was watching, but added that he didn’t want to put pressure on the candidate.

“This is a very extraordinary guy. We need him,” Trump said. “We need Republicans. We need the votes. Otherwise they’re going to take away your taxes, your tax cuts, they’re going to take away your Second Amendment rights."

Saccone, for his part, didn’t shy from Trump’s importance in the race, saying his supporters should send an ally to Congress.  

“The president’s support is key to attaining victory on March 13 and so is your support,” he said. “There is no one I’d rather have in my corner than President Trump.”

Most strategists in both parties see the race as a tossup. Lamb has attempted to show independence from national Democrats, including saying he would not support Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader and praising Trump’s recent decision to impose new tariffs on aluminum and steel.

Trump called Lamb’s positioning insincere, saying he’d vote the party line in Congress. He even gave him a nickname: “Lamb the sham.”

“The people of Pittsburgh cannot be conned by this guy Lamb. You just can’t do it. He’s never going to vote for us,” the president said. He later added, “Pelosi’s party in Congress is full of people who tell their voters one thing during the election and then go to Washington and vote lockstep.”

Trump’s wide-ranging rally remarks were reminiscent of speeches he gave during the 2016 campaign. He bounced between different subjects, attacking Democrats, touting the tax cuts he signed last year, talking extensively about his decision to accept talks with North Korea over the country’s nuclear program and championing newly announced tariffs on steel and aluminum.

He talked about his 2016 Electoral College win, attacked Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and said he would “love” to run against Oprah in 2020: “I’d love to beat Oprah. I know her weakness.”

He also unveiled what he said would be his campaign slogan in 2020: “Keep America Great!”

A chunk of attendees at the rally were from outside the district and can’t vote for Saccone on Tuesday. But those who were from PA-18 said they planned to stick with the party.  

“He’s a Republican, I’m going to vote Republican no matter what. I think he’ll do a better job,” said Tony Policastro, 58, who works in construction outside Pittsburgh. Policastro had no complaints about Trump’s first year in office. 

“I do think he’s keeping promises,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like it, but I do like it: He’s shaking things up. He’s not afraid to get people pissed off at him, and he’s doing what the American people want.”

Mary McVay, 51, an occupational therapist, had a similar message: “He’s a Republican. That’s all it takes. We can’t stand the Democrats. I don’t know that much about Rick Saccone, I’ll be honest with you. But he’s a Republican. And he’s a veteran. So that’s good enough for me.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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