In tight race, GOP leans on Trump, his base

CLOSE ELECTION — Republican Rick Saccone, right, acknowledges the crowd during a campaign rally with President Donald Trump, Saturday, in Moon Township, Pa. Saccone is running against Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election being held today for the Pennsylvania 18th Congressional District vacated by Republican Tim Murphy. -- Associated Press

TRAFFORD, Pa. — President Donald Trump invoked “steel and business” Monday as he and his son make a final push to sway voters in a special election for a Pennsylvania House seat that will reverberate nationally.

Trump has already visited the district twice to try to buoy Republican Rick Saccone. On the last day before voting, Trump weighed in again as Republicans try to fend off an unexpectedly strong challenge by Democrat Conor Lamb in a district Trump won easily in 2016.

“The Pittsburgh Post Gazette just endorsed Rick Saccone for Congress,” Trump tweeted. “He will be much better for steel and business. Very strong on experience and what our Country needs. Lamb will always vote for Pelosi and Dems….Will raise taxes, weak on Crime and Border.”

Later on Monday, Donald Trump Jr. was expected to stump for Saccone at two separate events, becoming the latest in a line of senior Trump administration figures to appear with Saccone in the district.

The 60-year-old state lawmaker has struggled with an electorate that favored Trump by 20 percentage points just 16 months ago. He needs the residents of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District to nationalize their choice and make him a proxy for what they already think about Washington, the president and the issues that define their party affiliation.

The outcome today of 2018’s first congressional election is being closely watched as a key test of support for Republicans ahead of November’s midterms. Democrats must flip 24 GOP-held seats to claim a House majority, and an upset will embolden them as they look to win in places where the party has lost ground in recent decades.

Republicans, meanwhile, would be spooked about their prospects in this tempestuous era of Trump, who most recently visited Saturday night on Saccone’s behalf.

The 33-year-old Lamb, a Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, has crystallized the debate over whether a younger, charismatic Democrat appealing to win back traditionally Democratic voters can overcome Republican party loyalty in a GOP-leaning district at a time when Trump remains a divisive figure.

Barbara DeFelice, a 64-year-old retiree, said she decided months ago to back Republican Rick Saccone for one reason: opposition to abortion rights.

“He shares my values,” DeFelice said Sunday. “I just don’t understand that people say we shouldn’t put lobsters into hot, boiling water … but we can kill babies.”

Nearby in DeFelice’s upper-middle-class enclave outside Pittsburgh, engineer Carol Heinecke, 57, offered another absolute reason for supporting Saccone: President Donald Trump. “Rick’s going to support everything he’s doing,” she said.

Such attitudes will be the difference should Saccone emerge victorious.

Saccone has tried at times to make the race about experience, touting his four decades in the public and private sector, from an Air Force career and stint in North Korea to his current job as a college professor. He sometimes mocks Lamb as having “no record at all.”

But that, by itself, hasn’t given Saccone much traction against Lamb, who hails from an established Allegheny County political family and pitches himself as independent-minded. To back that up, Lamb opposes sweeping gun restrictions, endorses Trump’s new steel tariffs, avoids attacking the president, and tells voters he wouldn’t back Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California for speaker if Democrats won a House majority.

Asked why Lamb could win the district when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton couldn’t, Bill Kortz, a former steel worker and a Democratic state lawmaker from Allegheny County, said it came down to Lamb’s opposition to more gun control. “He’s a Marine,” Kortz said. “He’s good with guns. He’s good with the Second Amendment.”

Lamb, however, keeps to party orthodoxy on unions in a district with a long history of coal mining and steel-making.

He blasts the new Republican tax law as a gift to the wealthy and a threat to Social Security and Medicare. “People have paid into these programs over the course of a lifetime,” Lamb told more than 300 retired coal miners and Democratic activists Sunday in Waynesburg, 40 miles south of Pittsburgh. “I do not believe, as (Republican House Speaker) Paul Ryan does, that these are entitlements or another form of welfare.”