Trump Says He Needs Rick Saccone Ahead of Pennsylvania Special Election

Thousands of steelworkers live in 18th District, site of Tuesday’s contest

President Donald Trump spoke Saturday night at a rally for Republican Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In a wide-ranging speech Saturday night outside Pittsburgh, President Donald Trump touted his agenda and plugged supporters to vote for Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone in next week’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, telling voters he needs more GOP lawmakers in Congress to support his agenda. 

“The other opponent, his opponent, is not voting for us,” Trump said in Moon Township, referring to the Democrat nominee Conor Lamb. “He can say all he wants, there’s no way he’s voting for us ever, ever … Rick is going to vote for us all the time, all the time.”

Trump mentioned Saccone a half-dozen times in a speech that lasted more than an hour, and brought the candidate onstage toward the end. He covered a myriad of subjects, including his recent tariff announcement, news that he could meet with the leader of North Korea, the economy, his  2016 presidential win, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Todd of NBC News, illegal immigration and imposing the death penalty on drug dealers.  

His announcement that he would impose import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum came just days before Tuesday’s election in a district that is home to scores of steelworkers.

“Steel is back, it’s going to be back too,” Trump told the crowd.

But it’s not clear what effect that will have on the final outcome.

“Whether that moves the needle in this election, I really don’t know,” Mark Hrutkay, chairman of the Washington County Republican Party, said in a Friday phone interview. He said the tariffs might have had more of an impact if the announcement had come earlier, and workers could feel some of the benefits.

Recent polling shows a close race between Saccone and Lamb in a district Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016. The seat had been held by GOP Rep. Tim Murphy since 2002, until he resigned last year after allegations that the anti-abortion congressman encouraged his mistress to have one.

Watch: Trump Signs Steel and Aluminum Tariffs

Trump said his agenda was on the line in this special election, and encouraged his supporters in the southwestern Pennsylvania district to back Saccone.

“We need Republicans, we need their votes. Otherwise they’re going to take away your taxes, your tax cuts. They’re going to take away your Second Amendment rights,” he said.

Trump also spoke at length about stricter penalties for drug dealers, speaking positively of other countries, like China, which impose the death penalty for such crimes. Trump said he was not sure if the U.S. was ready to impose the death penalty for drug dealing, but said it should be part of a discussion. 

The opioid crisis has hit southwestern Pennsylvania especially hard. Allegheny County, located in the 18th District, had the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center

The crisis has also been a part of the special election, with both Saccone and Lamb fielding attacks on the issue.

The Democratic group American Bridge launched a digital ad citing Saccone’s comments in which he said families should shoulder the costs and that there was no funding to combat the crisis. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee also put up a television ad hitting Lamb for striking a plea deal with a drug dealer when he served as a U.S. attorney. 

Both Lamb and Saccone have countered the attacks. Saccone has cited his support for legislation to combat the crisis. Lamb said the ad was misleading, and as a prosecutor, he was focused on taking drug dealers off the streets.

It’s not clear whether Trump’s presence on the campaign trail three days before the race will boost turnout, but Saccone was hoping it would. 

He told reporters Wednesday that the 18th District was “Trump country” and he hoped the president’s visit Saturday would also help sway undecided special election voters who backed Trump in 2016. 

“There’s also a segment of undecideds that hopefully they’ll remember why they voted for Trump to begin with, and they’ll come out and vote for me,” Saccone said before talking to natural gas workers in Canonsburg. 

Though Trump touted the steel tariff as a win for workers in the district, the steelworkers’ union and other labor groups are backing Lamb, a Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor.

Leo Gerard, the president of United Steelworkers, spoke at a rally for Lamb on Friday at the union building in Pittsburgh. He stressed that Lamb would protect programs such as Social Security and Medicare, according to video of the event posted on Facebook.

Tim Waters, the steelworkers’ political director who lives in the 18th District, doubted that the steel tariff would have an effect on the race. While acknowledging that working-class voters supported Trump in 2016, he said this race was not about the president.

“This is Conor Lamb versus Rick Saccone, period,” Waters said in a phone interview recently. “It’s not a national election.”

Labor groups in the district, many of which previously backed Murphy, have launched a coordinated grass-roots effort to support Lamb. More than 80,000 people in the district are in union households, with nearly 18,000 of them affiliated with the steelworkers’ union. 

Saccone has argued that he has the support of rank-and-file union members, if not union leadership. 

Republicans have already started to place the blame squarely on Saccone should he lose, or narrowly win, on Tuesday.

“This is clearly a race about candidate disparity,” a Republican strategist involved in the race said Saturday. “It’s an A-plus candidate, honestly, in Conor Lamb, versus an F candidate in Saccone and the campaign that has been run.”

“I think the big thing here is people in the beginning of this race were like, ‘Oh, is this a race about Trump?’ No it’s not,” the strategist said. “Trump’s popular in this district.”

In other words, Trump’s popularity might not translate to support for Saccone, an Air Force veteran who was first elected to the state House in 2010.

National Republicans have argued that Saccone has been a lackluster fundraiser with an ineffective campaign.

Lamb raised more than four times as much money as his opponent as of Feb. 21, according to Federal Elections Commission documents. The Democrat raked in nearly $3.9 million to Saccone’s nearly $918,000. 

Outside GOP groups have poured several million dollars into the race, airing television ads backing Saccone and attacking Lamb. But because candidates are given a better rate for television ads, Lamb has been able to compete on the airwaves thanks to his prodigious fundraising. 

With the election just three days away, both campaigns have been attempting to galvanize their voters to turn out to the polls.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. rallied union workers and Lamb supporters earlier this week. Democratic Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts also hit the campaign trail for Lamb.

White House top adviser Kellyanne Conaway appeared at a local GOP event with Saccone earlier this week as well. And the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is reportedly campaigning for Saccone on Monday. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.

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