High stakes on Tuesday for Republicans and Democrats in Pennsylvania's special election
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania voters in the traditionally conservative 18th District will go to the polls and choose between Rick Saccone, the 60-year-old, Republican state lawmaker who claimed to be "Trump before Trump," and Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor, positioning himself as a moderate Democrat.
The stakes are high for both parties. For Republicans, a Saccone victory will give the party hope of holding the House in 2018 and affirm the president's ability to mobilize down-ballot races. For Democrats, a win for Conor Lamb will help the party recruit candidates as they seek to win back control of the House by bagging traditionally conservative seats.
The president stuck his neck out for Saccone, appearing at a packed campaign rally in Moon Township over the weekend. While Trump spent most of the time talking up his accomplishments, and even unveiling his 2020 campaign slogan ("Keep America Great!"), he encouraged the crowd to get out on Tuesday "and vote like crazy."
"This is a very important race. Very important," Trump said, adding, "This guy should win easily ... I hate to put pressure on you, Rick."
Saccone said he expects the president's support will carry him on Tuesday. "If President Trump's in your corner, how can you lose?" Saccone said at the weekend rally.
It's not entirely a rhetorical question. The president has had a mixed record in recent special elections, despite boasting of a winning streak on Twitter.
"The Republicans are 5-0 in recent Congressional races, a point which the Fake News Media continuously fails to mention," Trump tweeted on Sunday.
I backed and campaigned for all of the winners. They give me credit for one. Hopefully, Rick Saccone will be another big win on Tuesday."
Technically, Republicans won five of seven special elections, holding Utah, Montana, Kansas, South Carolina and Georgia. Democrats won in California and gained a seat in the Senate when Alabama Democrat Doug Jones beat Trump's pick Roy Moore in a stunning upset.
Democrats have also begun upsetting conservatives in statewide elections, flipping 39 formerly Republican seats in state legislative races, including a gubernatorial win in New Jersey turning the state solidly blue. It's a battle of inches, though, after Democrats lost more than 1,000 seats during President Barack Obama presidency.
The latest polls from Pennsylvania are inconclusive, showing each candidate ahead or behind by a two or three-point margin.
The winner on Tuesday will fill Rep. Tim Murphy's seat. The eight-term congressman resigned in October after he came under pressure for an extramarital affair and reports that he asked his mistress to have an abortion.
The race is even more peculiar because the hotly contested district won't even exist next year. Following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision last month to redraw the gerrymandered congressional map, the winner of Tuesday's election will have to run in a newly fabricated district.
According to Michael Cohen, director of the political management program at George Washington University, there is no reason Pennsylvania 18th District should be as close as it is.
"At this point, this election should be over. Saccone should be cruising to at least a 10 to 15-point win. And right now, Conor Lamb is within striking distance of taking this one," Cohen said.
Yet in a district that Trump won with a 58 to 39 percent margin in 2016 and with a candidate that has been given a full-throated endorsement by President Trump, the Democrat may pull off an upset.
Much of that has to do with quality of the candidate, Cohen noted.
Lamb has consistently bested Saccone in fundraising inside the district. In the first two months of the year, Lamb raised $3.3 million, while Saccone brought in a mere $703,000.
Lamb has also been careful to keep his distance from the Democratic establishment in Washington. The candidate has criticized House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, the likely party favorite to take the speakership if Democrats win 24 seats in the 2018 election. In January, Lamb called for "new leadership on both sides," saying, "I think it’s clear that this Congress is not working for people."
Lamb is also appealing to independent voters and centrist Republicans. He supports the tariffs President Trump announced last week, has said he personally opposes abortion and has run campaign ads portraying himself as a vocal advocate for the Second Amendment and gun owners' rights.
Trump argued that Lamb is "trying to act like a Republican" to earn votes, and he labeled him "Lamb the sham," over the weekend. In a Monday tweet, Trump argued that "Lamb will always vote for Pelosi and Dems."
However, if Lamb pulls out a victory on Tuesday, it could be an example of what it means for a Democrat to win in a tight race. Specifically, it could challenge the idea that a candidate has to subscribe to party orthodoxy in order to be accepted into the fold.
"The fact of the matter is, parties care a lot more about winning than their orthodoxy," Cohen said. "Look at what happened with the Republican Party in 2016." As long as the candidate is good, resonating locally and able to notch a congressional victory for the party, Democrats are not likely to nit-pick about policy differences.
On the other side, Saccone has failed to muster the enthusiasm to carry the solidly Republican district. "[H]is campaign has been, to put it bluntly, pathetic," wrote Jay Cost, a conservative political analyst and columnist at the National Review.
"His fundraising has been anemic, forcing him to rely heavily on the national party; his campaign schedule has been lackadaisical; and his grassroots organization basically nonexistent," Cost continued. The only hope for Saccone is turning out the Trump vote.
To make up Saccone's "anemic" fundraising, the national Republican establishment has stepped in with nearly $10 million in campaign cash for Saccone. Lamb's campaign has accepted only $1.1 million from the Democratic national party apparatus.
The Trump administration has also pulled out the stops, bringing Vice President Mike Pence to stump for Saccone, as well as Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. spent Monday campaigning in the district. Trump and his surrogates have told voters that Saccone will work with the president to bring back jobs, improve border security and pass the president's other priorities.
Lamb also benefitted from some Democratic star power appearing next to former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign rally last week, with an appeal to the district's blue-collar workers.
Former Hillary Clinton adviser Philippe Reines argued that the Republicans have already lost a battle in Pennsylvania's 18th District.
"There's no good news for the Republicans out of this race," Reines told Bloomberg. "Because even if they were to pull it out, they cannot put in the resources that they are putting into this. ...The Republicans cannot put $8, $10, $12 million into every race in November."
As with any election, turnout will be the biggest factor.
In Westmoreland County, the director of the director of the county Elections Bureau is expecting 30 percent of registered voters will show up to the polls. It would be an improvement over 2016, when 27 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Democrats have a theoretical advantage in the race, with 46 percent of voters in the district registered as Democrats against 41 percent of Republican registrants. However, those numbers haven't helped the party win the seat in past elections. National Democrats, eager to win back seats, are hopeful that the recent special elections may be a harbinger of high Democratic enthusiasm on Tuesday.
In Montana's special election in May and the Kansas special election for the deep red 4th District seat, the Democratic candidates put the GOP on the defensive. The Republican candidates eked out 6 and 7-point victories in those races that the party has traditionally won by double digits.
In Georgia's 6th District, both Democrats and Republicans broke the bank, with both parties pouring more than $69 million to win the traditionally red seat. Rep. Karen Handel won out against Democrat Jon Ossoff by 3 points in the most expensive House race in U.S. history.
Sen. Doug Jones' surprise upset over Roy Moore, who was bogged down in sexual assault scandals, fueled Democratic optimism. During House Democrats' annual conference last month, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, unveiled the party's plan to compete in almost every district in 2018. Already, the DCCC says it is fielding candidates in 226 of the 238 districts now held by Republicans.
But coming within striking distance is not the same as winning. And Republicans, not Democrats, have won all but two congressional special elections.
The Republican National Committee continues to outraise the Democratic National Committee, and brought in a total of $132.5 million in 2017. In February, the RNC outraised the DNC two to one, bringing in $12.4 million compared to the Democrats' $6.1 million. The GOP has touted strong economic numbers, despite President Trump's low approval rating, and a tax bill that is increasing in popularity.