Democrats hunt for an upset in Pennsylvania

Democrats are hoping to add an upcoming special election in Pennsylvania to their recent string of wins, as the party looks to gain momentum ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Pennsylvania’s 18th District has been in Republican hands for more than a decade. But now, after GOP Rep. Tim MurphyTim MurphySaccone loses GOP primary comeback bid in Pa. Nearly half of voters hope for Dems to win majority in 2018: poll GOP Rep. Dent will leave Congress in May MORE resigned in October over growing coverage of an affair, Democrats see an opportunity for a pickup in red territory.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE won the district by almost 20 points in 2016, meaning that in normal circumstances the upcoming March 13 special election to replace Murphy would be a sure thing for the GOP. But Democrats are cautiously eyeing the district.

They believe the open seat could be in striking distance after high profile wins in Alabama and Virginia, where a mixture of Democratic enthusiasm and frustration with the president helped secure victory.

While analysts still see the race as the GOP’s to lose, the Cook Political Report moved its forecast of the race closer to Democrats on Friday, changing its rating of the race from “Likely Republican” to “Lean Republican.”

Republicans are considering taking action to prevent a Democratic surprise. The White House is considering sending Cabinet members or even Trump himself to motivate voters to keep the seat in Republican hands, according to a report in The Washington Post.

“Right now, Republicans have to be nervous about special elections even in heavily Republican districts. But the burden is still on the Democrats,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

“[The district] has this history of voting Republican because of the nature of the electorate — white, working-class, non-college-educated workers that supported Trump. Overall, it’s a reasonably reliable Republican district.”

The parties selected their nominees in November at party conventions. The Democrats are running former assistant U.S. Attorney Conor Lamb, while Republicans tapped state Rep. Rick Saccone. Both candidates are veterans — Saccone was in the Air Force, while Lamb served in the Marine Corps.

Campaigning hasn’t yet hit a fever pitch, but the two sides are already making clear what kind of attacks await their opponents as election day nears.

Saccone scored an upset in a blue district when he won his state House seat in 2010 with a resume that includes work as a former intelligence officer and former diplomat in North Korea.

Despite his district’s previously blue leanings, Saccone won over conservatives with pro-gun and anti-abortion stances, as well a push to permit public schools to display the motto “In God We Trust” on school grounds.

“He’s a conservative in the western Pennsylvania sense. What Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama to visit Kenya, South Africa for Obama Foundation in July Overnight Energy: EPA declines to write new rule for toxic spills | Senate blocks move to stop Obama water rule | EPA bought 'tactical' pants and polos Clarifying the power of federal agencies could offer Trump a lasting legacy MORE once criticized as bibles and guns — he appeals to that segment of the district,” said Vince Galko, a longtime GOP strategist in the state.

Democrats are likely to tie Saccone to Trump and the Republican-controlled state legislature. Saccone once declared himself to be “Trump before Trump” — a potent attack line for Democrats as Trump’s approval rating slips in the state.

Lamb, the Democrats’ pick, is seen as more of a moderate choice aimed at straddling the line in a conservative-leaning district.

Lamb has touted his work as a prosecutor, noting his work against opioid addiction in a state that has faced soaring overdose rates.

While Lamb has never served in elected office, he comes from a notable Pittsburgh-area political family — his uncle is the Pittsburgh city controller, and his grandfather was a powerful Democratic leader in the state Senate.

“Conor is a fresh face. A Marine, a prosecutor; that’s right out of central casting for a strong candidate to run in this district,” said Democratic strategist Mike Mikus, who lives in the district.

“I think this has the potential to be very competitive.”

Republicans will undoubtedly frame him as a vote for the Democratic agenda, evoking the time-tested GOP attack of linking Lamb to House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiMark Penn: Dems could win House, but Pelosi not guaranteed speakership On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump floats tariffs on European cars | Nikki Haley slams UN report on US poverty | Will tax law help GOP? It's a mystery The American economy is stronger than ever six months after tax cuts MORE (D-Calif.).

While the district has been safely Republican for years, Democrats point to a number of reasons to be excited about Lamb’s potential to flip the seat.

Democrats have a small registration advantage in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, according to data provided by the Pennsylvania secretary of State’s office. And Mikus told The Hill that his analysis of data from November’s local court races shows Democrats winning or posting a strong showing in the district.

The party has so far overperformed in special elections this year, combining suburban and more moderate voters with a supercharged Democratic base.

That was the ticket in Alabama, where Democrats won a Senate seat for the first time in decades — albeit against a GOP candidate marred with sexual misconduct allegations.

The Pennsylvania seat lacks the strong pocket of minority voters that helped deliver the Alabama seat to Democrats— the district is 93 percent white. And Saccone has avoided the kind of scandal that would turn off traditionally Republican voters.

But Mikus believes there’s a chance to cobble together enough suburban Democrats and union members to make the race competitive.

“They think of the district as a rural district, but 41, 42 percent of the vote is going to come out of suburban Pittsburgh and Allegheny County,” he said.

“There’s a base to launch from. It’s not a traditional Democratic base of young voters, there isn’t a large minority population, that’s gone. But there’s a very strong labor base.”

Republicans aren’t convinced.

They see the voter registration numbers as an anachronism of a Democratic Party that has since changed and lost those voters.

“It’s a very blue-collar part of the state that had some tough economic times after the downsizing of steel. It’s a strong Second Amendment, Christian community,” Galko said.   

“They identify more with the national Republican platform because what they are seeing from the national Democratic Party isn’t the party their parents or grandparents voted for.”

In the end, the race could hinge in part on Trump. The president ran up the score in districts like the 18th in 2016 in order to win Pennsylvania, but there are signs that his image is slipping.

A Franklin & Marshall poll from late September found that only 29 percent of voters in the state had a positive view of Trump’s job performance, down from 37 percent in May. The 53 percent of Republicans who shared that positive view represented a decline from 67 percent in May.

Those approval numbers are certainly pulled down by the Philadelphia area, and are likely higher for Trump in the 18th district. That means a visit from an administration official — or even the president himself — could help boost Saccone with the GOP faithful.

Reports of potential White House involvement underscore the race’s national implications.

“It would be a harbinger for a big Democratic wave,” Madonna said. “That is still a long shot, however.”