After a shocking win in a rural Wisconsin senate race Tuesday, Democrats are feeling increasingly bullish they can win another target deep in Trump territory, flip their first House seat since Trump’s 2016 victory and strike fear into the hearts of Republicans across the country.
Their target: a blue-collar southwestern Pennsylvania House seat recently vacated by disgraced former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) in territory national Democrats haven’t seriously contested this decade.
Strategists in both parties see a surprisingly close race developing in the district ahead of the March 13 special election. After some major investments, Republicans are pulling out the big guns on Thursday: A visit from President Trump himself, who will hold an official event on the district’s edges where he’s expected to boost the Republican candidate.
“Clearly there’s a lot of intensity and energy on the Democratic side and they’ve outperformed their recent numbers in other special elections. We’ve got to take this very, very seriously,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) told TPM. “I do think we are taking this seriously and I think we’re going to win, but we’re not going to be asleep at the switch.”
Republicans know a loss in this deep-red, blue-collar district after blowing an Alabama Senate race, getting crushed in Virginia’s gubernatorial race and losing more than 30 statehouse seats in the past year would further alarm their party — and be a sign that the 2018 Democratic wave might be large enough to drown some members who never thought they’d even need to swim.
“If we lost that race, it’d be quite an earthquake. I don’t know if I’d say on the scale of Alabama, but it’d be close,” one Pennsylvania Republican congressman told TPM.
Republicans have reason for concern.
Democrats have landed a top-notch recruit in Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor whose family is a Democratic powerhouse in the Pittsburgh area. Republicans have by their own account nominated a somewhat lackluster candidate, dubbed “not Jack Kennedy” by one national Republican. State Rep. Rick Saccone (R) is a conservative firebrand who’s known as a weak fundraiser.
That matchup, paired with white-hot opposition to the president from the left, has created a single-digit race, according to private polling from both sides. And while Democrats admit it’s an uphill battle in the GOP-friendly district, they’re feeling bullish that they can pull off an upset that would prove they can win in rural, populist terrain.
“I think he’s going to win,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told TPM Monday night, calling it “a very strong indicator of a good year” for Democrats that the race is competitive.
The district stretches from suburban Pittsburgh deep into rural territory along the West Virginia border — Coal Country meets the Rust Belt, what one GOP congressman described to TPM as “The Deer Hunter district” (the film was based on the region).
Trump won it by a lopsided 20-point margin, improving on Mitt Romney’s 17-point victory there. And while it contains some of Pittsburgh’s tonier southern suburbs, much of the district is blue-collar populist — the type of ancestrally Democratic area that’s been moving gradually towards the GOP for decades where Trump’s right-wing populist nationalism sold particularly well.
Saccone is bear-hugging Trump in his campaign — the president remains relatively popular there, though his numbers have slipped — and is touting the GOP’s recent tax cuts and his own military experience on the trail (he’s an Air Force vet).
“Rick will work tirelessly to continue advancing President Trump’s bold agenda in Congress,” Saccone adviser Bob Branstetter said.
But Lamb isn’t looking to make the race about Trump.
“The President coming to campaign for Conor’s opponent doesn’t change what Conor or the campaign are doing,” Lamb campaign manager Abby Murphy said.
Lamb is positioning himself as an independent voice that fits the district. He’s pledged not to support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for speaker, talks up his support for gun rights and qualifies his support of legal abortion with the caveat that as a Catholic, he personally opposes it.
That makes it harder for Republicans to paint him as a Pelosi foot-soldier, though they say they’ll do so anyways. And while many Democrats want to run against Trump, he’s going harder after House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who polls show is almost as unpopular as Pelosi in the district, attacking Ryan for his plans to shrink Medicare and Social Security.
“Connor’s independent, he’s made that very clear that the interest is going to be his district, whereas Rick Saccone has hitched his wagon to Paul Ryan,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), whose district abuts the 18th, told TPM.
On the other hand, Saccone is running hard to the right — unlike his predecessor Murphy, who easily held onto the district until it was revealed late last year he’d had an affair and encouraged the woman to have an abortion. Murphy long defended labor rights and had a good working relationship with many local unions, while Saccone has sponsored right-to-work legislation, fought against public employee unions and is best known for religious conservative pushes in the statehouse.
If Democrats can win in this district, they think they can win almost anywhere — and the building 2018 wave might be big enough to help them win the more rural areas they need for House control and defend tough populist states like nearby West Virginia as well as Indiana and Missouri.
“It will show if rural voters are still convinced Donald Trump is still going to make their lives better, and I’m wondering if some are realizing that may not be the case,” a national GOP strategist told TPM, warning a Saccone loss would be “a five-alarm fire” for the party.
Republicans still think they have the edge, a view most Democrats agree with. But Trump’s visit is the latest in a flurry of GOP activity as they look to stave off what would be a crushing loss in a district they shouldn’t need to spend to keep. The main House GOP super-PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has 50 field staff working the ground with an aim for 250,000 voter contacts. Ending Spending, a right-wing super-PAC funded by the Ricketts family, is already on the air with $1 million in positive spots touting Saccone’s record, as is another Ricketts group that backs Trump.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) held a D.C. fundraiser for Saccone on Wednesday. Trump’s political operation is gearing up for more involvement, including likely campaign stops from Vice President Mike Pence and help from Trump-aligned outside groups.
Neither candidate has reported fundraising yet, but Doyle said Lamb had brought in more than a half-million dollars by the end of the year — an impressive figure — while a source close to Saccone’s campaign would only say that he’d raised at least $100,000 by the end of 2017. Lamb’s first campaign ad debuts Thursday.
“This is a Republican district, but when you have you have an A candidate on the D side and certainly not an A candidate on the Republican side, Jack Kennedy reincarnated on the Democratic side and not Jack Kennedy on ours, that is a concern,” said one national Republican involved in the race.