The Final Days: PA 18th Election – Mar. 13th, 2018

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway deplanes Air Force One in December. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

via WaPo 202 by James Hohmann – with Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve

PITTSBURGH—If Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone wins an unexpectedly close special election here next Tuesday, it will be on Donald Trump’s coattails. On the other hand, this race wouldn’t be competitive at all if the president was not so polarizing – even in a mostly blue-collar, largely rural southwestern Pennsylvania district that he carried by 20 points in 2016.

This race should be a gimme for the GOP. Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate in 2016 or 2014. But public and private polls show the contest in the 18th district is now a toss-up, even after Republicans have poured in more than $10 million – about five times what Democrats have spent.

Court-ordered reapportionment means that the district will cease to exist in its present form come November, but a defeat here would nonetheless represent the biggest political humiliation for Trump since he went all in for Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama and lost anyway last December. That’s why the White House is sending the cavalry.

Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway flew here Thursday night to stump for Saccone at the Allegheny County GOP’s Lincoln Day dinner. Her appearance was not scheduled until this week. She assured the crowd that the nominee will be “a reliable vote” for Trump. “This should be easy,” she said, referring to the choice facing voters. “The Republican Party has shown the value of unified government.”

Conway, who managed Trump’s campaign in the fall of 2016, touted the tariffs Trump had just formally enacted a few hours earlier. “He’s going to make sure we have steel and aluminum sectors that are strong and vibrant and fully employ people,” she said.

The crowd of 500 activists in a Doubletree hotel ballroom heartily applauded, a stark contrast to the opposition from most congressional Republicans.

Conway, who got standing ovations coming and going, called herself “the warm-up band” for the real star: Trump himself will hold a rally in a hangar at the Pittsburgh airport on Saturday night. Then the president’s son, Donald Jr., will campaign with Saccone on Monday.

White House officials have said over the past week that they think the new tariffs could help tip the race their way. The United Steelworkers union, which endorsed Democratic candidate Conor Lamb, says that 18,000 of its members live in the district. The president’s aides even discussed having Trump formally sign the tariffs during his rally on Saturday, but they concluded that this would make them look politically motivated. Afraid Saccone will lose, other White House aides encouraged the president to consider canceling his trip. But Trump wants to come. He likes to hold rallies in front of raucous crowds, and he’s excited when candidates for other offices are eager to appear with him.

Trump may help gin up just enough base turnout to put Saccone on top, although he’s such a lightning rod that GOP strategists privately acknowledge his visit could equally motivate his critics.

“The enthusiasm is on the Democrats’ side, as it is all around the country,” said Val DiGiorgio, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. “We need everybody out there helping this weekend.”

This really is the epicenter of Trump’s geographic base. He carried the Keystone State because of his strength in western Pennsylvania. He got more votes from Allegheny than any other county in the state. This district stretches from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the state’s borders with West Virginia and Ohio, which were even more rabid for Trump two years ago.

POTUS already plugged Saccone when he came here in January to sell the tax cuts. He was scheduled to headline a rally in February but canceled because of the massacre at a high school in Florida.

Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter who is also a senior White House aide, were able to make the trek in February for separate events designed to boost the GOP candidate.

The administration has even used old-fashioned pork-barrel spending to try dragging Saccone across the finish line. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came to a small town in the district two weeks ago to announce a $301 million program to reclaim abandoned coal mine land. Not one for subtlety, Zinke signed a huge ceremonial check as the GOP nominee looked on. They were half a mile from an abandoned mine.

Sacconne, a state representative, has returned the favors by constantly and effusively praising Trump. The Air Force veteran promises to be Trump’s “wingman” in Congress.

“You were President Trump before President Trump got here, my friend,” Speaker of the state House Mike Turzai told Saccone, who he’s served alongside over the past eight years, during a speech at the dinner.

Because it’s such a red district, there are few national Democrats who can effectively appear as surrogates. An exception is former Vice President Joe Biden, who campaigned with Lamb on Tuesday at a union hall.

“It’s about everybody getting their base out,” said Doug Weimer, a seventh-grade teacher who is a township supervisor in Hempfield Township. “The Reagan Democrats here definitely voted for Trump, and I think they’ll continue to. … Conservatives don’t always put their yard signs out, but they’re still going to vote. Signs don’t vote.”

Valerie Gaydos, a Republican running for an open state House seat that is partially in the congressional district, acknowledged that it’s a tough environment to have an “R” after your name on a ballot. “People are being flooded by information and they’re confused,” she said. “People want to see both parties talk to each other again. People want to see government work. I don’t think they want to see career politicians.”

State Sen. Scott Wagner, an affluent businessman who is running for governor, got to speak at the start of the program because he was giving Conway a ride back to Washington on his private plane after she finished her speech. (Before Steve Bannon was banished, Wagner also gave the former chief White House strategist a ride.)

Wagner told the crowd that his campaign just conducted internal polling this week that showed Trump’s approval rating at 83 percent among Republicans in Pennsylvania, up from 78 percent in January. He chalked it up to the tax cuts. Wagner noted that he’s given bonuses to hundreds of his own employees since the law passed. “A lot of good things continue to come out of D.C.,” he said.

During a 24-minute speech, Conway noted about a dozen times that she was speaking in her “personal capacity.” Federal investigators publicly chastised her this week for twice violating the Hatch Act by offering support for Moore from the White House. “I took a vacation day today,” she said, to knowing laughter from the assembled partisans.

Conway spoke at length about Lamb’s opposition to a 20-week ban on abortion. “Amazing,” someone in the crowd yelled. “Yes, it is amazing,” she replied from the stage. “That’s not the word people use in focus groups, but you’re eating dinner.”

This area is heavily Catholic, and Republicans see curtailing abortion rights as a winning issue here. Tim Murphy, whose resignation prompted this special election, was one of the most outspoken “pro-life” spokesmen in Washington – right up until text messages emerged that showed the married congressman urging his mistress to get an abortion.

Republicans in Washington downplay a potential defeat by arguing that Saccone is a bad candidate. They say Lamb has a hard-to-beat resume and ran a smart campaign. The 33-year-old was a captain in the Marine Corps and served as a federal prosecutor. This is his first run for office so he doesn’t have much of a paper trail. Saccone’s representatives declined to respond to the criticisms from national operatives.

He has undeniably been a bad fundraiser. Lamb outraised Saccone about $4 million to $1 million. But that advantage has been offset, several fold, by national GOP groups.

This race, though, really is not about Saccone. Even he doesn’t think so. Last night’s Lincoln Day dinner, which an advisory said would begin at 5:30 p.m., finally started at 7:15 p.m. and didn’t conclude until just before 10 p.m. Saccone, 60, spoke last. He could read the room well enough to realize these Republican regulars wanted to go home. So he talked for less than five minutes, highlighting an endorsement from the National Rifle Association and noting that his son currently serves on active duty in South Korea.

1 comment to The Final Days: PA 18th Election – Mar. 13th, 2018

  • @ teve tory : My understanding is that Lamb is a really good candidate and Saccone is awful. Lamb is a local kid with local ties. Not sure what Saccone”s story is. Lamb is pro-gun and anti-Pelosi, and Saccone is anti-union in a heavily unionized part of the country. A lot of the union vote seems to be leaning toward Lamb. 5 0

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.