Just days before a crucial special election for a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania, Republican Rick Saccone held court for about 20 volunteers at a get-out-the-vote rally.
Four miles away from the Allegheny County GOP headquarters where Saccone was speaking, Democrat Conor Lamb had just finished a rally with more than 100 supporters and members of the steelworkers union.
The back-to-back events days ahead of Tuesday’s special election in southwestern Pennsylvania provided a snapshot look at how a House district that should be safely in the Republican column and that President Donald Trump won by almost 20 points in 2016 is suddenly competitive.
The race will be a test of whether Trump, who campaigned for Saccone in the state on Saturday, still ignites the kind of fire within the Republican base that the party is counting on to not only put Saccone over the top but to help the GOP hold off a potential Democratic surge in the November elections that will decide control of Congress.
"The Economy is raging, at an all time high, and is set to get even better. Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!" Trump said in a Twitter posting on Tuesday morning.
A Democratic upset in a district where the party didn’t even field a candidate in the last two congressional elections would be another sign that their bnn's daily voting base is motivated and that Trump most ardent backers aren’t as enthusiastic when he’s not on the ballot. It would follow Democratic victories last year in a special Senate election in solidly Republican Alabama, as well as wins in Virginia, New Jersey and a handful of state races in other parts of the country.
'WORLD IS WATCHING'
At a rally for Saccone on Saturday night in the heart of the district, which stretches from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the border with West Virginia, Trump laid out the stakes in Tuesday’s vote.
"I hate to put this pressure on you, Rick, but the world is watching, because I won this district,” Trump said.
Even if Saccone, a state legislator, prevails, it would demonstrate that 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 as they try to hold on to their House majority in November.
Saccone and Lamb are competing in the 18th District to replace Republican Tim Murphy, who resigned last October amid personal scandal. But the winner’s tenure may be short. Barring a last-minute reversal by the federal courts, Tuesday’s election will be the last held under a Pennsylvania congressional map the state Supreme Court invalidated in January. The court replaced it last month with a map that’s more favorable to Democrats.
In four polls taken in the district this month, Lamb led in three of them, though the spread in all four was within the margin of error.
Some Republican operatives, speaking on condition of anonymity, have been laying part of the blame on Saccone’s skills as a campaigner. They cite his weak local organization and lackluster fundraising. Saccone raised US$918,000 through Feb. 21 compared with US$3.9 million for Lamb, Federal Election Commission reports show.
Lamb supporters echoed those comments. “Anybody on either side, except for maybe Rick Saccone’s family, would probably admit we have the better candidate,” said Tim Waters, the political director for the United Steelworkers of America.
National Republican groups have stepped in, with the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans spending more than US$3.5 million and Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-political action committee linked to House Republican leaders, spending more than US$3.3 million.
Several members of the Trump administration and family have campaigned on behalf of Saccone. Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to the president, appeared at several events with the candidate on Thursday, while Donald Trump Jr. helped rally a large crowd of volunteers in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, on Monday night.
At Friday’s event with supporters and volunteers at the party’s Allegheny County office, which featured a cardboard cutout of Trump, Saccone, 60, dismissed the anonymous complaints about his campaign.
“All the Republicans that I know in leadership, they’re for me 100 per cent,” Saccone said. “So when some so-called news organizations says they’ve got an anonymous source that says Republicans are throwing me under the bus, I say that’s unfair journalism and fake news.”
He said his accomplishments, like the president’s weren’t being fairly reported.
“Forty years of life experience in diplomacy, in academia, in government, in the military, in international business –- the media doesn’t talk about that at all,” he told supporters Friday.
Roger Valente, the chairman of the Quaker Valley GOP, a group within Allegheny County, said voters might not be aware of Saccone’s background, particularly in academia, because he comes off as a blue collar worker. Saccone is a former counter-intelligence officer in the Air Force, has a doctorate and was a professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, teaching political science and other courses, and still teaches there part-time.
“This is a big time blue collar area and Rick Saccone relates to blue collar people,” Valente said. “If you look at the opponent, he looks like some rich guy’s son.”
But it’s hard for the GOP to cast Lamb as a liberal who’s out of step with voters in the district. A 33-year-old Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, his positions don’t always follow national Democratic Party orthodoxy. He supports expanding fracking to extract natural gas and has distanced himself from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Lamb supports gun-owners rights and opposed a proposal to raise the minimum purchase age for a rifle to 21, but backs expanding background checks.
Lamb called organized labor “the heart and soul of this campaign” during a Sunday rally with the United Mine Workers of America. His campaign has been endorsed by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the mine workers’ union, and the steel workers. There are about 80,000 union members in the district, and the steelworkers set out to talk to all of them, Waters said.
Barbara Barnes, a 67-year-old retired union pipe fitter from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, said she appreciates that Lamb is a young, educated veteran while saying that Saccone is too focused on social issues like abortion. Barnes, who attended the Lamb rally, said she voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
"I feel that he gets it, while the other person is preoccupied with issues that do not affect a working family,” Barnes said of Lamb. “I’m looking at the jobs and the economy, I’m not looking at any kind of culture issue."
While Lamb is depending on union support, Saccone needs support from Trump voters like Judy Wilson.
Wilson, a 74-year-old real estate agent from Robinson Township, said she likes Saccone because “he has the same views I do” in opposing abortion and the need to fight the opioid crisis. She added that she has been contacted several times, and received an automated call from Vice President Mike Pence before attending the Trump rally.
“I have never gotten so many political calls,” she said, even during presidential elections.