National News

With Trump’s Visit to Pennsylvania, GOP Scrambles to Save a House Seat

Posted January 17, 2018 7:56 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Republicans are scrambling to save a heavily conservative House seat in western Pennsylvania, dispatching President Donald Trump to the district on Thursday while preparing a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to stave off another embarrassing special election defeat in a district that was gerrymandered to stay Republican.

When former Rep. Tim Murphy was pushed out of the House last year after the revelation that he encouraged a mistress to have an abortion, Republican leaders gave scant thought to his successor. The odd-shaped district in the southwestern corner of the state was drawn to skirt Democratic Pittsburgh and concentrate conservative-leaning, steel and coal country voters.

But since then, Democratic enthusiasm has surged, especially after the improbable Senate victory of Doug Jones last month in Alabama, and Republicans continue to lose lower-profile special elections in friendly districts — the latest in a Wisconsin state Senate race on Tuesday.

That has raised alarms in the White House and among Republican leaders anxiously eyeing the House special election on March 13. Holding just a 24-seat majority, with retirements of veteran lawmakers piling up, House Republicans can scarcely allow Democrats to snatch a seat they have not even competed for in recent elections.

And Trump is loath to suffer another electoral humiliation, particularly in a district that he carried by 19 percentage points in 2016.

So a constellation of conservative groups are planning an extensive intervention to carry the Republican nominee, Rick Saccone, a state representative and former Air Force officer, across the line in a House seat that has been in the party’s hands for 16 years, but where internal polls from both parties now reveal a single-digit race.

Trump will appear at an industrial equipment sales and repair company to trumpet both Saccone and the recently passed tax overhaul.

Vice President Mike Pence will follow on Feb. 2, according to Republican officials familiar with the planning, attending a similar, policy-oriented event before hosting a fundraiser for Saccone. And Trump and Pence both may make additional visits, according to party officials.

National Republicans worry that Saccone, 59, is proving to be a lackluster candidate, an assessment that was reinforced when he raised only $200,000 at of the end of the year, nearly half of it in cash transfers from House lawmakers eager to preserve their majority.

To prop him up, the House Republican campaign arm hosted a fundraiser Wednesday evening in Washington with Saccone; Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; and each of the Republican winners of special House elections last year.

Saccone will return to Washington next month for a fundraiser featuring the entire roster of House Republican leaders including Speaker Paul Ryan.

Further, a group of well-financed outside Republican groups is planning to unleash a biting advertising campaign against Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee and a Marine Corps veteran. A pair of conservative organizations have already broadcast about $700,000 worth of commercials in the district and the best-funded House super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, is preparing to go on the air next week with a spot blistering Lamb.

“We will attack Conor Lamb, we will define Conor Lamb, and we will explain why he is a Nancy Pelosi rubber stamp,” vowed Corry Bliss, who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund and had already opened two field offices in the district, referring to the House Democratic leader.

But Lamb, a former prosecutor, may not be so easy to link to Pelosi.

“They can throw anything they want at him, but he’s already said he’s not voting for Pelosi as speaker,” said Marcel L. Groen, the Pennsylvania Democratic chairman.

Lamb, 33, hails from a prominent Pennsylvania political family — his grandfather was once the Democratic leader in the State Senate — and has indicated he wants to run a local race.

With the possible exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, few high-profile Democrats would help Lamb by dipping into the district, which includes affluent precincts around Pittsburgh and more working-class enclaves along the West Virginia and Ohio border.

To date, the House Democratic campaign arm has kept its distance and is unlikely to pour money into the race, preferring to husband its resources for less Trump-friendly terrain up for grabs in November. But Lamb still outraised Saccone in the last quarter of 2017, bringing in more than $550,000.

And some members of the Pennsylvania Democratic delegation are making the case for Lamb. A group of them hosted a $1,000-a-person fundraiser for him in Washington on Wednesday.

“I’m more bullish on our chances than I think the consensus,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa. “While it would be an upset, we can win it in this environment. The Wisconsin results last night show that.”

Already buffeted by the announcements last week by Rep. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa of their retirements from their highly competitive California districts, Republicans absorbed another body blow on Tuesday when Wisconsin Democrats captured a state Senate seat that Republicans had held for 17 years.

In the state’s first special election of 2018, Patty Schachtner, a Democrat and the medical examiner for St. Croix County, beat Rep. Adam Jarchow, a Republican member of the state Assembly, by 11 points, flipping a seat in a rural district near the Minnesota border.

“Everything is in play now,” Melanie Conklin, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said on Wednesday. “This is a district that has been a very red district for a long time, and the numbers last night were very blue.”

Gov. Scott Walker, the state’s Republican chief executive, all but agreed.

“Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin,” Walker, who is facing re-election this fall, wrote on Twitter Tuesday night. “Can’t presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin.” The defeat was ominous for Republicans chiefly because it came in the sort of exurban and rural stretch of the Midwest where Trump romped in 2016. Even as he won Wisconsin by less than a point, he carried St. Croix County, the population center of the district, by 17 percentage points.

The day after her victory, Schachtner said she was overwhelmed by the results, barely able to keep track of phone calls and emails coming in.

When she first entered the race only months ago, the local Democratic Party was grateful but not confident that she could beat a Republican in the district.

“It was, ‘Thank you for stepping up,’ that type of conversation,” she said. “They said the GOP kind of owns this area, but it’s good to have a name we know.”