Against the Grain

GOP Panic Spreads to Pennsylvania

Republicans have spent over $9 million in a blue-collar district Trump carried by 20 points. If the GOP can’t win there, they’re in deep trouble.

Republican Rick Saccone (left) and Democrat Conor Lamb before the taping of their first debate in the special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, at the KDKA TV studios in Pittsburgh on Feb. 19.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 4, 2018, 6 a.m.

Republicans are learning an uncomfortable reality about the political environment for 2018: Tax cuts, conservative culture-war staples, and even Nancy Pelosi herself probably won’t be enough to overcome the deep hole that President Trump has put them in. With the White House awash in scandal and struggling to articulate its agenda, the political mood has turned so grim that Republicans are in danger of losing an upcoming special election in the heart of Trump country.

That’s the lesson to draw from the surprisingly competitive campaign Democrat Conor Lamb is running in a Pittsburgh-area district Trump easily carried by 20 points, surviving millions of dollars in outside GOP attack ads portraying Lamb as a liberal in disguise. Even a close loss in such a reliably conservative area would raise red flags that Democrats are on the verge of a major landslide in the November midterms.

If Lamb wins, it would be an unmistakable verdict that the healthy economy and Trump tax cuts will be overshadowed by the administration’s dysfunction and roiling suburban anger. Though the economy may play to the GOP’s advantage, the culture wars have turned squarely in the Democratic Party’s favor—and that’s what matters in today’s politics.

Here’s how tricky things have gotten for Republicans: GOP outside groups have dramatically scaled back their ads promoting the party’s tax cut, with the messaging barely moving the needle in the district’s working-class confines. The latest round of advertisements focus on law-and-order issues, like immigration and crime. A new spot from the Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC slams Lamb for supporting “amnesty to illegal immigrants” because he “worked in the Obama administration.” A National Republican Congressional Committee ad portrays Lamb as soft on crime because he negotiated a plea deal with a notorious drug kingpin during his tenure as a federal prosecutor. These culture-war ads are reminiscent of those run by Ed Gillespie in his failed Virginia gubernatorial campaign, and they carry the whiff of desperation.

Meanwhile, Republicans are sufficiently concerned about the energy from the Democratic base that CLF is distributing a mailer in suburban precincts of Allegheny County “thanking” Lamb for supporting gun rights. It’s a cynical attempt to dampen Democratic enthusiasm for his campaign. The mailer, first reported by The Washington Post, underscores how even in a district where Second Amendment support is strong, gun control has become a fresh rallying cry for a supercharged Democratic electorate post-Parkland.

In another warning sign for Republicans, there are indications that conservative-minded voters in this district value government entitlements as much as tax cuts. Lamb’s rebuttal to the GOP tax-cut argument was that he supported “middle-class tax cuts” but not ones that could lead to cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In an acknowledgment that the Democratic message resonated, a new CLF ad turns the tables and accuses Pelosi of supporting “massive Medicare cuts” while arguing that Lamb “won’t protect seniors.” As Republicans learned in the 2016 presidential campaign, the agenda backed by GOP donors doesn’t necessarily jibe with the issues that the GOP rank-and-file cares about—especially in a blue-collar district like this one.

Republicans are eager to pin a disappointing result in this election on their candidate—state Rep. Rick Saccone—but the reality is the race is being defined on Trump’s terms. Saccone is running as an unapologetic Trump supporter, calling himself the president’s “wingman” in an interview with National Journal last month. Trump will be campaigning for Saccone on March 10, and he is likely to promote his newly announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. It’s a protectionist position that Saccone quickly embraced, and one that is popular with the district’s sizable union membership.

This southwest Pennsylvania district is about as Trumpian as it gets: racially homogeneous, predominantly blue-collar, and filled with energy workers revolutionizing the region’s economy. To Lamb’s credit, he’s run a disciplined campaign and staked out moderate views on guns and fracking that have distinguished him from typical Democrats. But if Republicans can’t hold onto this seat with more than $9 million of outside GOP money invested here, it will serve as an awfully rude awakening to what’s likely to come for the midterms.

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