President Donald J. Trump waded into a Pennsylvania special election that Republicans are calling a bellwether for their prospects of holding onto majorities in the House and Senate in the 2018 midterms.
Trump put his political capital to the test with a visit on Thursday to a Pittsburgh suburb after suffering an embarrassing defeat late last year in Alabama, where he backed two losing candidates and the state elected its first Democrat to the Senate in a quarter century.
Trump applauded Republican candidate Rick Saccone as “someone people are hearing more and more about” at a rally at H&K Equipment Co., an industrial equipment supplier in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania.
“Rick is a great guy. I think he’s going to do really well,” Trump told reporters during a tour of the facility, promising to return to campaign on his behalf and “fill” a stadium.
The House Republican leadership has urged Trump to pay attention to the election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, scheduled for March 13, to help bolster Saccone’s profile, according to two people familiar with the matter. Democrats didn’t even field a candidate there in the last two elections, showing that Republicans and the White House acknowledge the 2018 stakes.
“There’s no question that this election is a referendum on Trump and it’s his to lose,” said G. Terry Madonna, a prominent Pennsylvania pollster and Franklin & Marshall political science professor. “The Republicans have taken this very seriously. And it’s a situation where the Democrats need a perfect storm of circumstances to win—they need the white working-class voters who went for Trump to stay home.”
Republican prospects for holding their congressional majority are running up against Trump’s record-low approval ratings, signs of a highly motivated Democratic base, and history. Since the end of World War II, the party in control of the White House has lost an average net of 26 House seats. Democrats can seize control of the House by winning a net 24 seats in November.
The Pennsylvania seat was vacated last year when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Rep. Tim Murphy, the Republican incumbent, suggested abortion as an option for a woman with whom he was having an extramarital relationship. The last time Murphy ran against a Democrat— in 2012—he won with 64 percent of the vote. Trump won the district by 20 percentage points in 2016.
Saccone has fully embraced Trump and his administration’s record. “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!” Trump said on Twitter on Thursday.
The president’s political party is supposed to pay for campaign travel, but US taxpayers will pick up the tab for the Pennsylvania trip.
“While the President has made clear his support for Republican candidates throughout the country, including in Pennsylvania, the purpose of today’s visit is to promote the President’s successful agenda, especially on taxes,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a news statement issued more than three hours after Trump’s tweet.
In July 2016, Trump criticized former President Obama’s travel for campaign purposes.
“Taxpayers are paying a fortune for the use of Air Force One on the campaign trail by President Obama and Crooked Hillary. A total disgrace!” he said on Twitter at the time.
Saccone is up against Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former assistant US attorney who is trying to appeal to centrists. Lamb won the party’s nomination by promising to oppose or work with Trump whenever it’s in the interest of his district. He’s also said he wouldn’t vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to become speaker if Democrats win a majority.
Public polls show that Saccone, a state legislator and Air Force veteran, has a 12-point advantage, but internal Republican surveys put his lead in the single digit, a person familiar with the numbers said.
One strategist close to the Saccone campaign noted that the GOP can’t count on Murphy’s strong margins since he ran noncompetitive races for so many years. If Democrats win the seat, they could paint it as an early ripple in the coming midterm wave, said the strategist. If Republicans win, they could say it proves that their loss in Alabama’s Senate race was an outlier, the strategist said.
While Republicans are still confident they’ll retain the seat, special elections tend to favor the party whose voters are more fired up, which appears to be the Democrats this year, the person said.
Late last year Democrats won gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia and knocked out Republican officeholders in both state legislatures. The biggest electoral surprise came when Democrat Doug Jones won a Senate special election in Alabama over a flawed Republican candidate who nonetheless had Trump’s endorsement.
Polls show that Trump has been losing support among college-educated female Republicans who live in southern parts of Allegheny County, outside Pittsburgh, according to Madonna, the Pennsylvania political scientist. “They’ve been deserting Republicans,” he said.
The Cook Political Report, an election forecaster, last week ranked the district as “lean Republican,” affirming that there is a chance for a Democratic upset. That marked a shift from a December 8 report that had the district solidly in Republican hands.
Yet, the spate of Democratic upsets, including a candidate for a Wisconsin state Senate seat this week that had been in Republican hands for 17 years, has prompted the GOP to put more energy into races that were once considered locked up.
On top of Trump’s visit, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to raise money for Saccone, and House Speaker Paul Ryan and congressional leadership will host a fund-raiser for him in Washington next month. He’s also getting money from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee connected to Ryan.
Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who was one of candidate Trump’s earliest backers, says he does not think the president is worried about Republican election prospects in a state Trump still considers a personal victory.
“I just think he just wants to show he hasn’t forgotten the important support our state gave him,” in 2016, Marino said.
Image credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg