Bethel Park, Pa. — On a snowy Friday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence took time out of his schedule to visit this hilly, middle-class Pittsburgh suburb in hopes of rallying support for Republican candidate Rick Saccone. At a nearby gas station, a native returning home from out-of-state for his father’s 90th birthday told me that Saccone had to win so the GOP could maintain control of the House. In the local public library, elderly residents analyzed the attack ads on their airwaves, wondering which ones they could believe. Two hours before the Saccone rally Pence was in town for, a local engineer, amateur musician, and registered Democrat came to the community center where the rally was to be held hoping to ask the candidate the time-old question: Which did he trust more, religion or science?
These locals aren’t the only ones interested in the race between Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb to replace disgraced Republican representative Tim Murphy, which will be decided when voters go to the polls on March 13. Though at first glance this might seem to be “just” another special election, with the 2018 midterms mere months away, it has been cast as a bellwether, attracting attention from neutral observers and partisans across the country. Such contests tend to be quirkier than most, so it’s always dangerous to extrapolate too much from their results. But this district, comprising wealthy enclaves in Allegheny County, the middle-class suburbs of Washington County, and hardscrabble farm and coal towns in Greene County, is as likely as any to answer the question on everyone’s mind ahead of November: Does the Republican message still resonate in Trump Country?
In the not-so-long-ago days when unionized labor dominated the local economy, the Democratic party had working-class bona fides and western Pennsylvania was deep blue. Steelworkers and mine workers learned early on that their union cards protected them from the bosses, and they voted for the party keeping that arrangement in place. Today, Democrats maintain a vestigial registration advantage of more than 70,000 people across the district. But over the decades, factories closed, taking union jobs with them as the old Democratic party lurched to the left. District Democrats started staying home on election day — or even voting Republican, picking the side they thought would defend their cultural prerogatives if not their economic interests. Though pride, toughness, and a reverence for industrial labor still remain here, the political tide has shifted.
Allegheny County towns such as Upper St. Clair are increasingly Democratic, their residents members of the party’s new coalition: well-educated, prosperous whites and ethnic minorities. But the rest of the 18th, once solidly blue, now votes Republican down the ballot. Donald Trump took the district by a 19-point margin, and Mitt Romney won by 17 percent before him. Murphy, meanwhile, hadn’t faced opposition since 2012, when he won in a cakewalk, 64–36. Pennsylania’s 18th district is a Republican stronghold.
The mustachioed, 59-year-old Saccone expects it to stay that way. In Trump’s GOP, he is an unreconstructed party loyalist. The national media cite his jocular line that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump” as evidence that he is too extreme. But in an interview at his Canonsburg office, he begs to differ. “All it means is the agenda that Trump nationalized, that touched the hearts of this country, is something that I ran on in 2010 and that I’ve been working on for years,” he says.
Saccone, currently in his fourth term as a Pennsylvania state representative, has a long record of conservative accomplishment in Harrisburg. “I’ve kept every campaign promise I made,” he says. To hear him tell it, this is an impressive list: balancing the state budget; limiting abortions; supporting gun rights; enacting property-tax reform. Since 2010, the state legislature has indeed passed on-time budgets (with the exception of this year), shuttered several abortion clinics in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell case, abolished its duty-to-retreat law, and amended the constitution to allow changes to property-tax laws. Saccone’s agenda is right out of the state Republican party’s playbook.
It’s no secret that Republican playbook nationally has changed in the era of Trump, if mostly in cosmetic ways. Republicans now talk less about job creators and the wonders of the market and more about so-called forgotten Americans. For Saccone, the new rhetorical form is old hat. He is an enthusiastic booster of tax reform, saying the package just passed by Congress is designed to confer benefits to the middle class. When asked what he would like to see the GOP emphasize in 2018, Saccone doesn’t miss a beat: infrastructure. “It’s a fundamental purpose of government,” he says.
This will sound good to his voters. A spending spree on roads and bridges would direct plenty of money to western Pennsylvania, and Saccone also wants funding to rebuild the outdated dams, locks, and communications infrastructure in the region, much of it very old and showing its age. “Our infrastructure is loaded with problems,” Saccone says. “These people feel neglected.” Having helped to build the rest of the nation, the argument goes, locals deserve to see improvements at home.
Outside of politics, Saccone boasts an impressive resume. He served in the Air Force, worked in counterterrorism for the Seoul and Los Angeles Olympics, and was a civilian counterintelligence consultant in Iraq. He lived in North Korea for one year, negotiating nuclear policy under the Agreed Framework. He has an M.A. in national security from the Naval Postgraduate School, and a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Pittsburgh. He is also the author of nine books. “Very few people can put that kind of package together,” he says matter-of-factly. “I bring something to the table that no other candidate does.” With a hint of frustration, however, he adds that he’s often been referred to in simpler terms: Conor Lamb’s Opponent.
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The young, telegenic Lamb gives Democrats good reason to fantasize about retaking the district and the national media an excuse to pay attention. At just 33, Lamb has already served in the Marines and as an assistant U.S. attorney. Hailing from a prominent Pennsylvania family — his grandfather was the Democratic majority leader in the state senate and his uncle is the Pittsburgh city controller — Lamb hopes to make a competitive race out of what should be a landslide for Saccone. In the process, he aims to win back the loyalties of voters who once considered themselves the core of the Democrat party.
There are some signs that he is succeeding, too. So far, he has outraised Saccone by more than $300,000, a testament to his work ethic and a warning sign for Republicans. Outside money has poured in, both from Democrats sensing an opportunity and from Republicans hoping to stave off embarrassment. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently made a $200,000 ad buy in the race, while top Democrat Steny Hoyer transferred thousands of dollars to Lamb’s campaign. On the Republican side, the Congressional Leadership Fund spent $1.5 million on an ad buy that says Lamb will be “one of Nancy Pelosi’s sheep,” and PAC money is helping to offset Saccone’s fundraising deficit. Pence told the delighted crowd at the rally that Trump, who appeared with Saccone just a few weeks ago, would again visit in the weeks to come. Both sides are taking the race seriously.
But Lamb’s biggest obstacle is his party, which, despite its voter-registration edge, remains exceedingly unpopular in rural Pennsylvania. Support for abortion, gun control, identity politics, and unrestricted immigration is poison here. Well aware, Lamb is running on a smart message of bipartisanship, stressing not the party’s major themes but locally pertinent issues such as combating the opioid epidemic and protecting unions. On culture-war issues, he remains strategically quiet, caught between the preferences of western Pennsylvania voters and the much more liberal national party. Neither abortion nor gun rights rate a mention on his campaign website. A Catholic, he has said he is personally opposed to abortion, yet conceded that “choice is the law of the land.”
Lamb’s biggest obstacle is his party, which, despite its voter-registration edge, remains exceedingly unpopular in rural Pennsylvania.
If Lamb openly disagreed with his party on any of the non-negotiable issues, he could become a pariah to the outside backers he needs to win. But if he openly embraced the Democratic platform, he would be at sharp odds with his own electorate. It’s a bind Republicans are quick to point out. “I won’t be saying much about Rick’s opponent, because he won’t tell Pennsylvania voters what he believes,” Pence told the crowd at Saccone’s rally. “It seems like the only thing Conor Lamb will say is that he didn’t support cutting taxes for hard-working Americans.”
Given such a tightrope to walk, Lamb prefers controllable closed-door events to wide-ranging interviews, even with potentially friendly press. (National Review, unsurprisingly, could not secure an audience.) Newly ascendant representative Joe Kennedy (D., Mass.) stopped by Lamb’s office on Thursday, but the campaign, mystifying some national reporters, kept the event under wraps until after it happened. Lamb prefers to raise money, knock on doors, and keep his distance from the journalists writing stories about his role in a possible Democratic restoration.
Polls suggest that the obstacles Lamb faces might be insurmountable. In early January, Gravis Marketing surveyed the district and pegged Trump’s approval/disapproval rating among likely voters at 54/39. The same poll showed Saccone with a comfortable 46–34 lead. Weeks later, Democratic firm DFM Research showed estimated Saccone to have a 41–38 lead, within the margin of error. But a Republican official told me to take that poll, which had a sample of just 384 and was primarily a survey about Amtrak funding, “with a pound of salt.”
It’s natural to pay attention to a special election to read national significance into its results at such a moment in American politics — especially if it’s in a bellwether district and features a savvy young politician with a pedigree. Win or lose, Lamb won’t be going away. But even if the media won’t discuss Saccone’s long résumé, he will benefit from the sudden availability of Trump and Pence, and he starts the race with one key advantage: He doesn’t have to dance around his party to appeal to voters.