GOP on edge as voters head to the polls in western Pennslyvania

2018-03-13 | Los Angeles Times

March 13--WASHINGTON -- An election Tuesday deep in Trump Country that was supposed to be a cakewalk for the president's favored congressional candidate has unraveled into a potential embarrassment for the White House.

Despite putting all the firepower it has into propping up the unyielding conservative aspirant Rick Saccone, who refers to himself as "Trump before Trump was Trump," the Republican establishment finds itself deeply anxious on election day in the district outside Pittsburgh.

In a place Trump won by 20 points and where Democratic candidates have barely registered for years, Conor Lamb, the 33-year-old prosecutor and former Marine running against Saccone, threatens to turn the seat blue.

Polls show the race is too close to call, with a Monmouth University poll released Monday showing the Democrat ahead by six percentage points if turnout is anything like that in other special elections since Trump took office.

A GOP loss would sting for Trump, who was in the district over the weekend campaigning for Saccone. And it would be a reckoning for the Republican donors who have spent more than $8 million trying to ward off an upset that would energize Democrats heading into the midterms later this year.

In a district filled with former steel and coal workers whose employment prospects and standard of living has diminished with globalization, the race has predictably become a referendum on Trump's policies. Throughout the campaign, Saccone and his allies emphasized the GOP tax cuts the president championed. They labored to paint Lamb as a loyalist to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), even after Lamb said publicly that he would not support keeping her in the leadership job. Trump's announcement that he would impose tariffs on imported steel seemed timed to propel Saccone forward.

But Saccone continued to sputter. GOP operatives complain privately that he is a lackluster candidate, and defeat would be more a reflection of his energy deficit and disconnect with voters than any broader concerns Trump's base has with how the Republicans are running Washington.

Unlike Trump, Saccone has shown little affinity for the rank-and-file union workers who make up a big share of the district's electorate. He is a strident right-to-work proponent who has antagonized the same organized labor groups that had endorsed the Republican who vacated the House seat in October, Tim Murphy.

Scandal forced Murphy to make an abrupt exit after texts surfaced showing the anti-abortion crusader encouraged a staffer with whom he was having an affair to seek an abortion. Abortion then went on to play big in the race to succeed him. Republicans tried to paint Lamb as an abortion rights zealot, but it proved a struggle. Lamb's position on abortion and most other social issues, including guns, is not far to the left of Saccone's.

As Saccone relied on national Republican groups to bail out his campaign and funnel millions of dollars into attacking his opponent, Lamb carefully avoided affiliations with the national Democrats who remain unpopular in the district. Working-class favorite Joe Biden was warmly welcomed to stump for Lamb. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other urban liberals kept their distance.

How warmly Lamb would be welcomed in Washington by fellow Democrats remains an open question. He's so wary of the party on so many issues that Trump joked while in Pennsylvania on Saturday that Lamb is pretending to be a Republican. At the moment, Democrats are not complaining. They are desperate to notch victories, particularly in Rust Belt regions like Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, where dismayed former factory and mine workers have abandoned the party in large numbers.

Whichever candidate wins, he will have only a short window to savor the victory. The district will be erased at the end of 2018 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state's congressional map improperly favors Republicans. If the victor wants to stay in Congress more than nine months, he will have to start campaigning again almost immediately and in a district with brand-new boundaries.

Twitter: @evanhalper