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GOP seeks to stave off big Dem upset
CANONSBURG, Pa. - Republicans are rushing to avoid a crushing defeat on Tuesday in Pennsylvania, where a Democrat looks poised to win an upset special election victory deep in Trump country six months before the midterm elections.
President Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., traveled to the district Monday in an attempt to boost Republican House candidate Rick Saccone, while Democrat Conor Lamb spent the last days before the election rallying the union workers who are seen as key to his victory.
Trump Jr.'s appearance at two Saccone events Monday is indicative of the GOP's all-out effort to hang on to the district. President Trump held a rally nearby over the weekend, a handful of key administration officials have visited the district in recent weeks and Republican outside groups have dropped more than $10 million into the district.
But the latest polls show Lamb closing in on Saccone - or even passing him. Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, but a new Monmouth poll released Monday showed Lamb leading.
Those numbers are stoking concerns among Republicans worried that a loss could shake the GOP ahead of the midterms.
"I have a very, very bad feeling in my gut about this one. I don't think this is going to go well for Saccone," said one Pennsylvania Republican strategist who asked for anonymity to give a candid impression of the race. "At some point, I saw [Saccone] as a guy in a rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic. They were rowing like hell, but they weren't making any headway."
Saccone has tied himself tightly to Trump in the final days of the race, a last-minute appeal to Trump voters, including many registered Democrats, who turned out in droves for the president less than two years ago.
Sitting with Saccone at a popular local candy shop, Trump Jr. called for Republicans to react to the recent polls by casting their ballots for Saccone.
"Our guys just can't take winning for granted, they have to get out there, they have to continue this fight - now, for the rest of '18, in '20," Trump Jr. said over a bowl of ice cream.
"In eight years, we can make a real difference. We just can't be lazy," he said.
Lamb held no public events Monday, but he spent Sunday at a rally packed with union members in Greene County.
Lamb and other Democrats are focused on winning back voters the party lost in 2016. Former President Obama nearly won Greene County in 2008, losing it by less than a percentage point, but Hillary Clinton lost it by 40 percentage points in 2016.
Now Lamb is looking to thread the needle in the conservative district by running a campaign that sets him apart from national Democrats.
He's promised to vote against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in her next leadership bid. Lamb has bucked calls for additional gun control, and said he's personally against abortion while supporting a right to choose as policy.
Lamb spoke for just six minutes at the Sunday rally, decrying the flood of GOP outside money into the district and promising coal miners he'd have their backs.
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts spoke at length after Lamb, capturing the crowd with a fiery speech.
"The Bible tells us someday we are all going to be judged by how we treat the least of these, and the labor movement and the Democratic Party are about treating the least of these with respect and dignity and lifting them up," Roberts said.
"Let me try to explain to you what kind of folks we are and what kind of Democrat Conor is. He's a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social Security-believing, health-care-creating and sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat!"
Republicans have privately fretted about Saccone's candidacy, concerned that his lackluster fundraising chops would cause problems. As Lamb surged in the final days of the race, GOP operatives have sought to lower expectations for Saccone, a former Air Force intelligence officer.
One Republican member of Congress told The Hill that while Saccone "has a good bio, he's just not a good candidate."
And Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio referred to the district as a "Democrat district" in a Monday interview with Fox News. In fact, while Democrats have a registration advantage in the district, Republican presidential candidates typically carry the district with ease, and former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy won reelection several times before resigning in October over an alleged affair.
Lamb has significantly outraised Saccone, prompting GOP outside groups to step in to provide the bulk of ad spending and organizing.
The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund led the spending pack with close to $3.5 million each, while the Republican National Committee (RNC) spent roughly $1.4 million on the race. Other outside groups have joined in, too, far outpacing outside Democratic money.
Democrats have mused that a weak GOP showing here could call into question how effective Republican messaging will prove in November. But another statewide Republican strategist pushed back on drawing too many lessons from the race.
"The base of the Democratic Party, the pure base, they are really excited right now like Republicans were a year into the last administration," the Pennsylvania Republican strategist said. "That's not always going to be indicative as to what happens in the fall."
While both parties are watching the race for signals about the midterms, whoever wins the seat will face a very different electorate in November. Barring a last-minute legal challenge, the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court has implemented a new congressional map for the 2018 cycle that completely changes the district lines.
Saccone is already circulating petitions to run in a more conservative new district in the southern portion of the state, according to The Inquirer in Philadelphia.
Lamb has said he'll run for a full term in November, but hasn't said in which district he'll mount his next bid. He's expected to challenge GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus in a more moderate district.
Recent internal RNC polls have Saccone closing the gap on Lamb and now trailing by just 1 point, a source familiar with the figures confirmed to The Hill.
But Republican strategists are still frustrated about Saccone's slow fundraising pace, which they say left him unable to compete with Lamb's messaging.
"Being able to control your own message is so vitally important in these special elections. Rick Saccone wasn't able to do that because he didn't have the money," said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania GOP strategist.