The Memo: Moment of truth for Trump in Pennsylvania 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE and the GOP are playing for high stakes in Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania. 

A loss in a district Trump carried by 20 points in 2016 would amplify Republican anxiety about November's midterm elections and sharpen questions about the damage the president's low approval ratings are doing to the party.

ADVERTISEMENT
The mere fact that the race is close, in a district that should be such favorable territory for the GOP, is an ominous sign, according to strategists from both parties. 

For Trump, “this would be bad news if the Republican wins a close race, and it will be terrible news if the Democrat wins,” said Democratic strategist Robert Shrum.

GOP strategist Dan Judy said that the closeness of the race underlines “the conventional wisdom, which is correct: that this is a tough environment for Republicans — and especially when the president is unpopular, that gives us significant headwinds.”

Money has poured into the race, with NBC News reporting on Friday that TV and radio advertising alone will amount to nearly $12 million. The NBC report, based on data from Advertising Analytics, stated that Republicans had outspent Democrats on the airwaves $7.3 million to $4.4 million.

Polls indicate the race could swing to either party. 

A Gravis poll last week gave Republican candidate Rick Saccone a 3-point lead in the contest, while an Emerson poll put Democrat Conor Lamb up by the same margin. 

Seeking to give Saccone a boost, Trump traveled to Pennsylvania on Saturday and held a campaign rally outside of Pittsburgh. 

"I came tonight because this guy is special," Trump told the crowd. The president also branded the Democrat "Lamb the sham," alleging that he was "trying to act like a Republican."

In a race where turnout could prove decisive, Trump’s rally could help energize Republican voters. But Democrats insist his appearance could also drive their voters to the polls.

Trump’s visit “is a double-edged sword in the district because it will fire both sides up equally,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. 

The president has been burnt in special elections before, notably in a Senate race in Alabama, where now-Sen. Doug Jones (D) won an upset victory despite Trump's support for Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreEx-Sheriff David Clarke describes how he would have stopped anti-fascists in 1930s Germany on 'Who is America' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump to GOP: I will carry you GOP strategist: Trump will be anchor around Republicans' necks in general election MORE

A GOP victory, even a narrow one, would at least give Trump a respite after a rough few weeks.

The White House has been rocked by the recent resignations of two major figures, communications director Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksTrump officials pushing Hope Hicks to join 2020 campaign: report Hope Hicks spotted boarding Air Force One ahead of Trump rally Omarosa questioned by feds over Cohen ties to National Enquirer publisher: report MORE and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn.  

The Russia probe led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE is reportedly finding new avenues of interest all the time.  

And the president has been hit by a legal suit from adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who says she had a sexual liaison with the president in 2006. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, made a $130,000 payment to Daniels shortly before the 2016 presidential election, apparently to keep her quiet, though Cohen denies Trump was involved in negotiating that deal. 

On more sober policy issues, the president’s taste for unorthodox choices remains intact. 

Against the wishes of his own party, Trump confirmed last week that he would enact tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum. 

That decision could benefit Saccone in Pennsylvania, where the steel industry has deep roots. 

"Your steel is coming back. It's all coming back," Trump told the crowd at his Saturday rally.

Amid Trump’s many controversies, including the Daniels saga, Republicans have sought to keep a singular focus on the economy in hopes that it will prove to be the difference-maker in elections. 

Job creation continues to be robust — more than 300,000 new jobs were added in February, according to new data released Friday morning. The tax cut passed last December is the GOP’s single biggest legislative achievement under Trump. 

One Republican strategist, who asked for anonymity in order to be candid, said that the economic picture was potent enough to counterbalance even tabloid-friendly distractions like the Daniels story.

“One of the things we learned from the Clinton scandals of the ‘90s is that if people’s lives are good and the economy is improving, they pay a lot less attention to the personal peccadilloes of politicians,” the source said.

But Democrats say that simply isn’t true. 

They argue that Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure and point to his low approval ratings. Trump’s job performance earns the approval of 40.9 percent of American but the disapproval of 53.7 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average as of Sunday evening. 

That is the context that makes the race in Pennsylvania so keenly watched — and why Democrats are so enthused.

“The most important outcome from this race will be the perception,” Nevins said. “A perception that Democrats can win in districts that are R+20 — where Trump won by 20 points — will further energize Democrats for the midterms.”

Trump himself seems fully aware of what's at stake.

"The whole world, remember that, they're all watching," he said at his Saturday rally. "This is a very important race."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.