Repub­li­cans

are watch­ing Penn­syl­va­nia’s spe­cial elec­tion to see if the president’s in­flu­ence will keep a House seat in their col­umn.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID WEIGEL AND ROBERT COSTA Jenna John­son con­trib­uted to this re­port.

way­nes­burg, pa. — The stakes are high for President Trump and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans in Tues­day’s spe­cial elec­tion to fill a U.S. House seat, with GOP lead­ers un­nerved about the prospect of de­feat and the im­pli­ca­tions for this year’s midterm elec­tions.

A loss in Penn­syl­va­nia’s 18th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict — a work­ing-class slice of the coun­try that Trump has cul­ti­vated as his po­lit­i­cal base — could shat­ter hopes that his core vot­ers will turn out in droves this fall and save the GOP’s 24-seat House ma­jor­ity.

And, com­ing days af­ter the president an­nounced tar­iffs on steel and alu­minum im­ports, the vote could raise fresh ques­tions about the power of Trump’s pro­tec­tion­ist agenda to lift his party.

“It re­ally is a test that sets things in mo­tion,” for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair­man Michael Steele said. “Does the base have en­ergy? Does the party have the struc­ture and dis­ci­pline it needs?”

But the cause has di­vided Repub­li­cans.

Inside the White House, Trump and his aides have dis­missed sug­ges­tions that the con­test is a ref­er­en­dum on him and have be­rated GOP can­di­date Rick Sac­cone, 60, for run­ning a slug­gish cam­paign against Demo­crat Conor Lamb, 33, ac­cord­ing to three Repub­li­cans who were not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

One GOP of­fi­cial said Sac­cone, a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, has been a “fail­ure” due to his lack­lus­ter cam­paign­ing and reliance on Trump — and coolly added that Lamb, a for­mer Marine, has been clever in shar­ing as­pects of Trump’s stances and run­ning as an out­sider in court­ing Repub­li­can vot­ers.

“He’s run­ning like he’s a friend of Trump,” for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia con­gress­man Bob Walker (R) said. “That ap­proach, plus the fact that some Democrats in these ar­eas are com­ing home, makes it com­pet­i­tive.”

Lamb has closed his bid with care. At cam­paign stops, the youth­ful for­mer pros­e­cu­tor never men­tions Trump. When for­mer vice president Joe Bi­den vis­ited, it was Bi­den, not Lamb, who took ques­tions.

“Let me tell you what kind of Demo­crat Conor is,” Ce­cil Roberts, president of the United Mine Work­ers of Amer­ica, said at Lamb’s rally Sun­day. “He’s a God­fear­ing, union-sup­port­ing, gunown­ing, job-pro­tect­ing, pen­sion de­fend­ing, Social Se­cu­rity-be­liev­ing, health care-cre­at­ing, and send­ing-drug-deal­ers-to-jail Demo­crat!”

Con­ser­va­tive groups have spent more than $10 mil­lion in the race, and Trump ral­lied a crowd here over the week­end, un­der­scor­ing the de­sire to emerge vic­to­ri­ous and calm GOP law­mak­ers who have seen a spate of re­tire­ments and only grown more wary of their re­elec­tion chances since Democrats won a U.S. Se­nate seat in Alabama in De­cem­ber.

Repub­li­cans said Mon­day that the surge of drama in what they had ex­pected to be a rel­a­tively sleepy race has re­vealed sig­nif­i­cant is­sues na­tion­ally for Trump and the party.

“It should wake every­body up,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said. Win or lose, “it should be a warn­ing sig­nal that Repub­li­cans have to do a bet­ter job ex­plain­ing our poli­cies and not live in an echo cham­ber. The peo­ple who hate Trump will come out, but what about the peo­ple who like him?”

Sac­cone spent the fi­nal day of the cam­paign along­side Don­ald Trump Jr., with the can­di­date and the president’s el­dest son don­ning hair­nets for a kitchen tour of Sar­ris Can­dies in Canons­burg. Trump Jr., who went to high school and col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia, said he wanted to spot­light a business that had grown from 320 to 400 em­ploy­ees fol­low­ing pas­sage of the GOP-au­thored tax law last year.

Asked about Repub­li­can criticism of Sac­cone’s cam­paign, Trump told re­porters, “God knows, if it’s go­ing to make it dif­fi­cult for Trump, the me­dia’s go­ing to be all over it.”

At the candy plant, Tony Ross, 72, said he re­mained un­de­cided. He was in­trigued by Lamb af­ter his for­mer union, the United Steel­work­ers, en­dorsed him, and by the Demo­crat’s sup­port for the president’s new steel tar­iffs.

“It’s like a death in the fam­ily when a steel plant closes down,” Ross said. “But I haven’t seen any­thing in Sac­cone’s record that stands out for un­em­ployed peo­ple.”

Dar­lene Bales, a 67-year-old fac­tory em­ployee, pointed at Sac­cone dur­ing the tour. “If he doesn’t win, lock him up!” she said.

Polls show a close race, but Sac­cone dis­missed the num­bers. “You guys have been up and down with poll num­bers,” he said. “We’re out meet­ing peo­ple ev­ery day, and ev­ery­where I go, it’s 100 to 1 for Rick Sac­cone.”

Trump won the dis­trict by nearly 20 per­cent­age points against Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016. The 18th in­cludes sub­ur­ban towns south of Pitts­burgh and has a mostly white elec­torate. The spe­cial elec­tion was called af­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tive Tim Mur­phy, a Repub­li­can, re­signed in dis­grace last year fol­low­ing the dis­clo­sure of an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair dur­ing which the an­tiabor­tion con­gress­man seemed to sug­gest that his mis­tress should seek an abor­tion.

“You can’t read too much into these spe­cial elec­tions. That’s why they call them spe­cial,” for­mer Trump cam­paign ad­viser Ed Brooker said, re­flect­ing the mood of Trump’s po­lit­i­cal cir­cle on the eve of the elec­tion. “You have to fo­cus on what the can­di­dates there are do­ing.”

The vic­tor will serve out the re­main­der of Mur­phy’s term, but the dis­trict will cease to ex­ist in its cur­rent form in Novem­ber, due to the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court re­draw­ing the state’s con­gres­sional map.

Lamb’s mod­er­ate streak has won con­verts. Linda Miller, 74, said that she and her hus­band left their pres­i­den­tial bal­lots blank in 2016, and that she had not voted for a Demo­cratic nominee since Bill Clin­ton. Trump, she said, had “brought some jobs back,” but Lamb had won her over af­ter say­ing he would not sup­port House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a lead­er­ship race.

“I haven’t seen any­thing she’s done in there that’s any good,” Miller said. “We need a young per­son in there who’s go­ing to be hon­est.”

Still, vet­eran Penn­syl­va­nia Democrats are cau­tious about pre­dict­ing an up­set.

“Lamb has out­raised Sac­cone, but it’s the out­side money where the Repub­li­cans have the ad­van­tage,” for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia gover­nor Ed Ren­dell said. “The in­cred­i­ble Repub­li­can spend­ing is go­ing to have an ef­fect, even though Lamb has been smart in not let­ting the race get na­tion­al­ized like we saw in the spe­cial con­gres­sional elec­tion in At­lanta last year.” In that vote in Ge­or­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict, Demo­crat Jon Os­soff was de­feated by Repub­li­can Karen Han­del (R).

Sac­cone’s pitch has been less about tout­ing the Repub­li­can tax law and more about em­brac­ing Trump at ev­ery turn. But that hasn’t stopped out­side GOP groups such as the Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund, a su­per PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), from run­ning a flurry of ads crit­i­ciz­ing Lamb for op­pos­ing the Repub­li­can tax effort and ty­ing him to Pelosi.

At the president’s Satur­day rally, many at­ten­dees said they re­mained stead­fast in Trump’s corner de­spite his con­tro­ver­sies, giv­ing party lead­ers con­fi­dence that the tar­iff push and Trump visit could keep the seat red.

On stage, Trump warned them that he could make progress only “if we elect peo­ple who are go­ing to back our agenda.”

James John­son, 42, had a oneword rea­son for why he planned to vote for Sac­cone on Tues­day: “Repub­li­can.”

“I think we need to keep the coun­try go­ing in the di­rec­tion it’s go­ing in,” said John­son, a Trump sup­port­ing union mem­ber who works in man­u­fac­tur­ing. He cred­ited Trump for his pay­check go­ing up about $100 a month since Repub­li­cans passed their tax law — and said that’s enough for him.

“It should be a warn­ing sig­nal that Repub­li­cans have to do a bet­ter job ex­plain­ing our poli­cies.”

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.)

PHO­TOS BY DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

LEFT: Don­ald Trump Jr. cam­paigns with Repub­li­can House can­di­date Rick Sac­cone, wear­ing black coat, at a candy shop in Canons­burg, Pa., on Mon­day. RIGHT: Sac­cone’s op­po­nent, Demo­crat Conor Lamb, cen­ter, talks to sup­port­ers af­ter a rally in Way­nes­burg, Pa., on Sun­day. Polls in­di­cate the race, in what was thought to be a re­li­ably red dis­trict in western Penn­syl­va­nia, is close. Sac­cone has em­braced President Trump’s po­si­tions, and al­though the White House has tried to tamp down ex­pec­ta­tions, ob­servers are watch­ing the race as a pos­si­ble in­di­ca­tor of how en­thu­si­as­ti­cally the Repub­li­can base will turn out in the Novem­ber elec­tions.

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