It’s no accident that President Donald Trump will travel Thursday to an equipment manufacturing plant outside of Pittsburgh. And it’s no accident that Pennsylvania Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone will be there too.
The visit is an official one, but with a political backdrop. H&K Equipment is located in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Saccone will face Democrat Conor Lamb on March 13, the first special election of the year.
On paper, the 18th District in the southwestern corner of the Keystone State should be firmly in the GOP column. Democrats acknowledge it will be a tough race to win, but Lamb’s background and moderate profile have given them some hope that it could be competitive.
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Democrats didn’t even have a candidate here the last two election cycles against GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who was first elected in 2002. Murphy resigned last year amid a sex scandal, after reports that the anti-abortion congressman encouraged his mistress to terminate her pregnancy.
Lamb, a former Marine and prosecutor, is giving local and national Democrats hope that he can appeal to white, working-class voters in the district who tend to be more conservative.
He has attempted to walk the line on thorny issues such as gun control and abortion, saying he is personally against abortion but supports the rule of law. He has also said he would not support Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader.
Democrats say the challenge for Lamb is keeping the focus on local issues, such as highlighting his work combating the opioid crisis as an assistant U.S. attorney. They also say he needs to focus on the economic issues in the district, home to many old manufacturing and coal mining towns. Another coal mine in the district announced last week that it would be closing.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has endorsed Lamb, which could help boost his credibility among union workers. But a source with Saccone’s campaign countered that the Republican nominee has also won support from union workers, pointing to his assembly seat located in the 18th District.
Republicans are already tying Lamb to the national party, casting him as too liberal and a Pelosi ally — a message they think will resonate.
Trump carried the district by 20 points in 2016. Previous GOP presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain also did so by double digits.
Democrats have roughly 24,000 more registered voters than Republicans in the 18th District, according to statistics from November from the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office. But strategists in both parties say that tally could include former Democrats who now support Republicans but have not changed their party affiliation.
“I really don’t think this race is a harbinger of 2018,” said one national Democratic strategist, noting the district’s Republican slant.
Democrats this year are targeting GOP districts that aren’t as heavily Republican, including those that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, as well as districts that voted for Trump but previously supported Democrats for president. The 18th District is not listed among the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 91 targets.
National Democrats are monitoring the race, but have yet to jump in. Unlike other special elections in 2017, which attracted millions in outside money, the Pennsylvania race comes in an election year when groups are allocating resources for the rest of the country.
Democrats made similar comments about hesitating to spend resources on the Alabama Senate race, which Democrat Doug Jones later won in December.
But strategists caution that the unique circumstances of the Alabama race (including a GOP nominee accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls) are not replicable. And they point out that the largely rural makeup of the 18th District, and its lack of racial diversity, makes for tougher terrain for Democrats.
Whether or not outside groups will play in the race is the “$10 million question,” said Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus.
“They shouldn’t unnecessarily invest just to invest,” said Mikus, who lives in the 18th District. “That said … if internal polling shows it’s winnable, of course, they should.”
Mikus said the district does have suburban, affluent sections that could be more inclined to support a Democrat. And he said a Democrat could also win support from the working-class voters who support more populist economic policies.
“I don’t think so much time has passed that these people are gone from the Democratic Party permanently,” Mikus said.
Democrats are also hoping those voters will reject Saccone, who has said he was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” as too extreme.
Saccone’s previously lackluster fundraising did raise some concerns among Republicans, but a source close to his campaign said any rumors that he raised less than $100,000 are not true. The campaign is expected to release fundraising numbers by the end of the month.
The source noted that Saccone, an Air Force veteran who was first elected to the state House in 2010, has typically been outspent in state legislative races.
One national GOP strategist characterized concerns about Saccone’s fundraising as “a little overblown,” and said to expect a respectable fundraising number.
But the strategist did say it was probable that Lamb would raise more money. The candidates have until March 1 to file their pre-general election fundraising reports.
Lamb’s campaign did raise enough to start airing a television ad highlighting his biography Thursday. A source with knowledge of the ad buy said $100,000 was allocated for the first week, with the ad airing on broadcast and cable.
The concerns over Saccone’s fundraising prompted some GOP outside groups to jump into the race.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, opened two field offices in the district, with 50 staffers knocking on doors. The group’s national data director is on the ground. And it also plans to air television ads, according to a source with knowledge of its plans.
The conservative Ending Spending Inc. also plans to spend $1 million in ads on the race, according to The Washington Post. And the pro-Trump 45Committee is expected to spend $500,000 on the race, according to Politico.
Mikus saw the activity as a sign that Republicans were concerned they could lose the GOP-leaning district.
“I’m certain that these Republican independent expenditures would not be coming into the district, Donald Trump would not be coming to this district, if they were not very worried,” Mikus said.
But national Republicans also see the district as a place to prove they can still win on Trump’s agenda.
“I think it’s an opportunity for Republicans to show that our base is still motivated, still energized from the Trump election,” the national strategist said.
And Saccone isn’t shying away from GOP priorities, including the recent tax overhaul.
“We’re already experiencing the tremendous impact of tax reform in the 18th District — and Rick will work tirelessly to continue advancing President Trump’s bold agenda in Congress,” Saccone consultant Bob Branstetter said.