CANONSBURG, Pa. — If Democratic contender Conor Lamb wins Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District on Tuesday, it will send shock waves across the political landscape.
Democrat Conor Lamb has voted in Pennsylvania’s special election for the 18th Congressional District. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, tweeted his support for Republican Rick Saccone. (March 13) AP
President Trump won here by 20 percentage points in 2016, and many strategists see this mostly white, working-class district as a testing ground for the November midterms.
But don’t tell that to voters who live here, many of whom have not soured on Trump and are not part of the so-called Democratic resistance.
Sure, Lamb is benefiting from an energized Democratic base and a backlash against Trump. But voters also just really like Lamb, and even Republicans are lukewarm about his GOP opponent, Rick Saccone.
Lamb “seems like the right guy. I mean, he’s talking the right things. He’s level-headed,” Mario Colaizzo, a 70-year-old retired steelworker, told USA TODAY last week. “He just looks like the kinda guy that I would hire for that job. … He’s educated, he’s a veteran … and clean-cut, just the way I like it.”
“Conor is one of us,” Canonsburg Mayor David Rhome said after a gathering Thursday with Lamb and the Union Veterans Council in Canonsburg. “He’s one of the lay people that rolls his sleeves up, wants to get the job done and he’s worried about the little guys.”
Lamb, 33, an ex-Marine and former federal prosecutor, knows how to pitch himself as an average guy. At the union meeting, Lamb joked that his beat-up work boots were probably stinky because he had been at a sheep farm that morning before going door to door to pitch himself to voters.
With Lamb on the ticket, Democrats in this sprawling district outside Pittsburgh feel they have a chance to win for the first time in 15 years. Polls show the special election, to replace former GOP representative Tim Murphy, who resigned last fall, as a tossup.
Donald Trump Jr. campaigned on Monday for Republican Rick Saccone, the Republican in Pennsylvania’s Special U.S. House Election. He also downplayed the race’s importance. Polls show Democrat Conor Lamb could win the conservative district. (March 13) AP
A Monmouth University poll released Monday gave the Democrat a 6-percentage-point lead, 51%-45%, if Democratic turnout is similar to previous special elections over the past year. The same poll showed voters evenly split on Trump, with 49% approving of his job performance and 49% disapproving. Trump’s approval number here is 10 points higher than his 39% approval rating nationally in a Monmouth poll earlier this month.
“This district has voted overwhelmingly Republican in recent elections, but a large number of these voters have blue-collar Democratic roots. Lamb seems to have connected with them,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Saccone, the Republican, dismissed the race’s competitiveness as “something to be expected” because it’s a special election and sucking up all the political oxygen of the moment. “If this was a regular race, I think you would see I’d be way far ahead,” Saccone said.
Saccone has tied himself closely to Trump, saying he’d be “a good wingman” for the president on foreign affairs, spending, the military and more.
If sent to Washington, I’ll “fight for an agenda that the people voted in — that they voted me in for in 2010 and then they came back and voted President Trump in in 2016 — it’s the same agenda.”
His party is pitching him that way too — as a reliable Republican.
“Rick Saccone will be a great, great congressman. He will help me very much,” Trump promised at a rally with Saccone in Moon Township on Saturday.
Saccone, 60, has a lengthy résumé ofpublic service. He’s an Air Force veteran who worked in North Korea and other global hot spots and now serves in the Pennsylvania statehouse. But during a local Republican fundraiser just outside Pittsburgh last week, party leaders focused less on Saccone’s accomplishments and more on the need to keep the Pennsylvania seat in GOP hands.
“Rick Saccone, the nominee, belongs to a party that stands for and delivers on historic tax cuts, and he’ll be a reliable vote for the next big tax cut package,” said White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who headlined the Republican Committee of Allegheny County Spirit of Lincoln Dinner.
That’s reason enough for some voters here.
“I’m voting for him because he’s Republican. I want to keep it going,” said Jon McCoy, 57, a construction worker who is out of work. McCoy said he was supporting Saccone because he believes he’ll do better financially with Republicans in power.
McCoy, among those targeted by union volunteers on Thursday in a blitz of door-knocking, said he has a “big photo” of Trump inside his house and likes what the president and the Republican majorities have done so far.
“You know what people want around here, and you know why they’re voting for Rick Saccone? They want jobs,” Karen Kiefer, a lawyer who declined to give her age, told USA TODAY as workers from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., went door to door on Friday.
The super-PAC has spent more than $3 million in the race and dispatched dozens of full-time door-knockers to try to keep Saccone afloat.
Kiefer said her family has lived in the small town of Scottdale for generations. She has watched the town take an economic hit as factories and mills shuttered. But under Trump and the GOP majorities in Congress, she said, jobs are “coming back, and that’s why this area has been voting Republican.”
To bolster his chances of winning a seat that didn’t even have a Democratic candidate the past two cycles, Lamb has shied away from the national Democratic Party and has not taken an anti-Trump line. Instead, Lamb is playing up his support for veterans and unions — he’s even cautiously favorable about the tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that Trump put in place last week — and is pitching himself as bipartisan.
“It’s time for some unity in this country. That is what people want overwhelmingly. They’re tired of the divisions, tired of the gridlock,” Lamb said at a campaign event last week.
Lamb has played up his centrist chops. He is pro-gun and anti-abortion, though he said he wouldn’t vote to restrict access to abortions. He said he supports new leadership for his party. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who last year challenged Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the House minority leader post, joined Lamb for some campaign events last week.
“He embodies to me what the next iteration of the Democratic Party is going to look like,” Ryan told USA TODAY. “Veterans, working class, really representing people who are underemployed, who were maybe making some decent money 10-15 years ago but aren’t now,” he said.
Ryan said that if Lamb wins, it send a message to the party to recruit more candidates like him — centrists with military or law enforcement experience — at a time when others are tugging the Democratic Party leftward.
But others say that while Lamb is a strong candidate, a win here would be at least in part thanks to the national environment of Democratic enthusiasm and simmering anti-Trump sentiment.
Lamb has raised nearly $4 million, while Saccone has raised just under $1 million. Outside GOP groups, desperate to hold onto their Republican majorities — and fearful of the narrative that could emerge if a Democrat wins this GOP-leaning seat — have poured more than $10.5 million into the district to try to save Saccone. Outside groups have spent just under $2 million for Lamb.
Whoever wins the seat Tuesday won’t hold it for long. For the November midterms, neither Saccone or Lamb will live in the 18th District. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court scrapped the state’s current congressional map as an unconstitutional gerrymander and redrew it. A new map is expected to be in place by the midterms.
Much of what is now the 18th District will soon become even more Republican-leaning territory, giving a Saccone better shot in November whether he wins or loses Tuesday. The new map will put Lamb in the state’s 17th District, now held by Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus, which will become much more competitive if the Democratic contender wants to run again.
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