politics

Trump Faces Prospect of Embarrassing GOP Loss in Pennsylvania

Updated on
  • Democrat in position to take district president won in 2016
  • Republicans putting money, resources into what was a safe seat

GOP Faces Tight Race in Pennsylvania Special Election

President Donald Trump and the Republican Party are being forced to put their political muscle into the race for a Pennsylvania House seat that should be theirs for the taking.

Leading up to Tuesday’s special election, Democrat Conor Lamb is in a strong position to capture the district in the southwestern part of the state, where Trump won by 20 points in 2016 and Democrats didn’t even run a candidate in the last two congressional elections.

It would be an embarrassing defeat for the president and yet another sign of a weakened GOP heading into the November midterm elections that will decide control of Congress.

“Republicans should be able to hold a district like this,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic operative who lives in the district but isn’t affiliated with Lamb’s campaign. “But the combination of a strong Democratic candidate with a good message, a very weak Republican candidate, and the prevailing winds working against Republicans is going to spell disaster here for them.”

The Pennsylvania special election follows significant Democratic wins last year in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama and a surge of Democrats who turned out for primaries Tuesday in Texas that demonstrate a motivated base of voters, many driven by antipathy toward Trump. Even if Republican Rick Saccone, a state legislator, pulls off a victory, it could show Democrats are competitive in places they hadn’t been before and force the GOP to spend time and money defending what had been safe Congressional seats.

House Battle

With retirements by Republicans in closely divided districts and Trump’s historically low approval ratings, Democrats can reclaim the House of Representatives in the November elections. They need a net gain of 24 seats, and the party holding the White House has averaged a net loss of 26 in midterm elections since the end of World War II. Flipping Pennsylvania’s 18th District would position Democrats to have a seat they might not otherwise have even had a shot at.

National Republican groups and their allies have spent more than $10 million in TV ads to rescue Saccone’s campaign. The Trump administration also has been put to work in the district, including an event on small businesses that featured Ivanka Trump and a campaign rally featuring Vice President Mike Pence. On Saturday, Trump himself is scheduled to headline a rally.

Trump Country

The seat was previously held by Republican Tim Murphy, who was first elected in 2002. He resigned last October after it was learned that Murphy, married and a staunch abortion opponent, had encouraged a woman he was having an affair with to terminate a pregnancy.

The southwest Pennsylvania district stretches from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the border of West Virginia and has been solidly in Republican hands since it was drawn under redistricting in 2002. It’s 93 percent white with a median age of 44, and is home to the drugmaker Mylan NV, Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. and manufacturers such as Kennametal Inc.

"It’s a good test of whether Democrats can break through in Trump country," said David Wasserman, the House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats "should have no business winning" in that district given the Republican tilt.

Yet, Wasserman said, “I’d be surprised at this point if Saccone won. Every indication I’m seeing is that Lamb has the momentum heading into Election Day.”

Deadlocked Race

An Emerson College poll this week found Lamb up by 3 points, while a Gravis Marketing poll found Saccone with a 3-point edge, down from a 12-point lead in January.

The tightening race was changed from Republican-leaning to a toss-up Thursday by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political forecasting unit of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, citing Lamb’s strong fundraising and the lack of impact of Republican ads promoting tax cuts.

One Republican strategist involved in the race said Lamb brings an impressive biography as a Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor and has run an extremely effective campaign. By contrast, Saccone, an Air Force veteran and former college professor, has done a poor job fundraising, has a weak organization and has held few events in the district, according to the strategist, who asked for anonymity to talk candidly about the campaign.

Saccone spokesman Patrick McCann dismissed the complaints from Republicans as “just inside the Beltway stuff” that doesn’t matter in the race. “We have a lot of grassroots support here,” McCann said. “We’ve only been asked about it by the media. I don’t really care what anyone down there thinks.”

Lamb, 33, has raised $3.9 million — far more than the $918,000 that Saccone, 60, raised through Feb. 21. He’s faced a barrage of attack ads from outside GOP groups including the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC allied with the House Republican leadership. But they’ve struggled to land blows and haven’t slowed the Democrat.

Neutralizing Attacks

Mikus, the Democratic operative, attributed Lamb’s momentum to the enthusiasm among Democrats, as well as his success at "bringing a lot of Trump Democrats back into the fold."

He said Lamb neutralized Republican lines of attack by announcing his opposition to House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi and his support for gun rights, which made the election about issues like strengthening unions and protecting Social Security. He added that the result on Tuesday night would be either a "narrow Lamb victory" or a "really, really close loss."

“The story of this race is that candidates and campaigns matter,” said Corry Bliss, the executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund. “This is a challenging environment for Republicans. To be successful we need good candidates running good campaigns, and that is just reinforced by Pennsylvania 18.”

Still, in the heavily Republican district, Saccone’s advantages among voters are undeniable — if they turn out on Tuesday.

“I think it’s going to be very competitive,” said Debbie Bell, a 55-year-old registered nurse from Pittsburgh, who said she plans to support Saccone out of loyalty to Republicans and skepticism of Democrats. She said she doesn’t “like all those rumors” about Trump but still supports him. “I think he’s got a lot done quickly.”

Robert Wilson, a 72-year-old retiree who worked in industrial equipment sales, visited the Saccone campaign headquarters in Canonsburg on Thursday to pick up a yard sign.

“At this point, I just decided I needed equal time to offset some of the Democratic signs,” Wilson said. Wilson said that, as a conservative, he’s opposed to most liberal policies “and that’s why I’ll be voting for Rick, because I know he’s a conservative.”

— With assistance by Gregory Giroux

(Adds University of Virginia change in forecast in 13th paragraph. An earlier version of this article corrected the state that the congressional district borders in ninth paragraph.)
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