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Expect a tight race in special election, but PA-18 remains solidly Republican

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We’ve heard this song before. In the special congressional elections since Donald Trump took office, Democrats consistently have raised expectations over the bar.

From Kansas to Montana to Georgia, Democrats claimed that each would be different, a tidal wave of anti-Trump sentiment would wash over the district and voters would flock to the polls to elect their candidate.

{mosads}Like Lucy yanking the ball from Charlie Brown, each time they swung and missed. Sure, they came closer than they had historically. If there were cigars given for closer-than-expected  second-place finishes, they could open a tobacco store.  


Now the same tune is playing in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, where a special election will be held on March 13.   

Unlike the specials held to fill seats vacated by Trump appointees, this one is open because of the resignation of Rep. Tim Murphy. He didn’t even have an opponent in the past two cycles and won his last contested election by 28 points.

Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district encompasses parts of Allegheny (although Pittsburgh, the county seat, isn’t part of the district), Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties — the southwest corner of the state, bordering West Virginia and Ohio.

The district is overwhelmingly white (total minority population is less than 5 percent), older and down-the-middle class. It’s Democratic by registration, but Republican by voting pattern.  

Trump won there by 20 points. Mitt Romney carried it by 17 in 2012. Traditionally Democratic areas of the district, while maintaining their registration leads, have been voting Republican for two decades.

National Democrats are touting PA-18 as their latest opportunity to capture lightning in a bottle. They base their hopes on Trump’s perceived unpopularity, an energized Democratic electorate and a Republican candidate they hope to paint as “ultra” conservative.  

But there’s something different about the Democratic play in southwest Pennsylvania. In previous special elections, the party’s basic message was, “Trump is bad. Our guy isn’t Trump.”

That may have energized their base, but it was never enough to get them into the winner’s circle. All five U.S. House 2017 special elections in Republican-held districts stayed in GOP hands.

Democrats have figured out that a frontal attack on Trump won’t work in this Pennsylvania district. So they’ve adopted a different strategy.

They nominated Conor Lamb, a young former Marine and assistant U.S. attorney and part of a storied Pittsburgh political family. His grandfather was the state Senate majority leader four-plus decades ago and his uncle is Pittsburgh controller today.

The Lambs have been old-style Humphrey Democrats, tied to organized labor but far from the “resistance” progressives of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.

The youngest Lamb has pointed out that he is personally opposed to abortion (although still pro-choice) and pro-Second Amendment.

What makes Lamb really stand apart from previous Democrats seeking to wrest Republican-controlled seats is his announcement that he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi to lead the Democratic Caucus should he become part of it. Lamb is trying to get closer to Trump, not further away.

On the other side is state Rep. Rick Saccone, a surprise winner of the Republican nomination and a Trump supporter. Democrats will try to portray Saccone, a conservative leader, as “too conservative” to suit the district. That’s a tough case to make.

One thing Saccone has going for him is that he’s consistently been underestimated by his opponents — each time to their peril. He first won election running against a 26-year incumbent the political prognosticators said couldn’t be beaten.  

The defeated incumbent figured that Saccone had simply caught the 2010 GOP wave and sought a rematch in 2012. Saccone won again. He’s gone on to win by increasingly wider margins, taking 70 percent in 2016.

Few pundits thought Saccone would win the Republican nomination, but he did.    

Although he’s an ardent conservative, Saccone defies the image his opponents try to pin on him. He’s articulate and non-threatening. He’s extremely bright and holds several advanced degrees, including a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.

Most interestingly, he once lived in North Korea as part of a diplomatic mission. As Pyongyang continues to occupy center stage, it’s a unique selling point for Saccone.

Both candidates face the challenge of all special elections: raising money and putting together an organization very quickly and outside the usual election calendar. They’ll rely on help from national parties and interest groups.

The Congressional Leadership Fund is already setting up field offices for Saccone and the first major ad buy, brought by Ricketts family groups, is touting Saccone.

Thus far, the ad is unanswered by Lamb. It certainly will be, but how quickly is still a question. With the coldest days in memory keeping folks inside and close to their televisions, the message is being amplified.

Early positioning is critical. Changing opinions takes time and money. Neither campaign has an overabundance of either.

While it’s a seat that really shouldn’t be competitive, the race undoubtedly will be tighter than any since the district’s reconfiguration. But it remains a solid Republican and pro-Trump district.

The hard-core progressives will vote for anybody but a Republican, and Lamb will do his best to attract old-school Democrats back to his fold.

In the end, it’s likely to be the same old song, with an added verse.

Charlie Gerow, CEO of Quantum Communications and one of Pennsylvania’s most influential Republicans, is a nationally recognized leader in strategic communications and trusted advisor to leaders in government and business.

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Donald Trump Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Politics of the United States Republican Party Rick Saccone Tim Murphy

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