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Pennsylvania House race rattles Republicans

albert hunt

Albert Hunt


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

It's easy to hype the significance of special congressional elections, but the one next Tuesday in western Pennsylvania has really become a big deal.

A young Democrat's recent surge in the polls gives President Donald Trump just a week to head off a panic in his Republican party and validate his dubious claim that big tariffs on steel and aluminum imports are political winners. A Republican loss in a Trump-friendly district would be a huge blow in an already bad period for the White House.

Trump is scheduled to campaign on Saturday for Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate in a district that has been reliably Republican and that Trump carried by almost 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.

But neither side doubts that the Democrat, Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and prosecutor, has at least an even chance to score an upset that would be seen as the harbinger of a Democratic wave in November.

Private polls on both sides show a tight race, but with probable Democratic voters more enthusiastic; intensity often is a crucial factor in a special election. A public poll released this week by Emerson College shows Lamb with a narrow lead and the political betting market PredictIt now him as the slight favorite.

The demographics of the district would make Republicans shudder at a defeat, giving evidence that a lot is going wrong for the party nationally. It is disproportionately blue collar, white, union-friendly, older and non-college educated - dominated, that is, by the type of voters who swung the state and the presidential election to Trump.

Other than a slice of the Pittsburgh suburbs, it's mostly a manufacturing area with some jobs in steel. There's reason to believe that the surprise timing last week of Trump's announced tariffs on steel and aluminum - which caught even top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn by surprise - was intended to boost prospects in this critical contest.

If the Democrat wins three days after Trump's appearance in the district on Saturday, it'll set off fear among party strategists that they're likely to drop dozens of seats in November and lose control of the House.

Trump will stress his proposed 25 percent tariff on steel imports, which is popular in the contested district. He's under pressure from Republicans elsewhere to modify this plan, but don't expect that to happen before the March 13 election day.

Both Lamb and Saccone have embraced the steel tariffs, and early indications are that it might not be of much assistance to the Republican candidate, who has a decidedly anti-union record as a state legislator.

Lamb has kept his distance from national Democrats, but one of the few outsiders his campaign has enlisted, former Vice President Joe Biden, is scheduled to arrive this Tuesday for a labor rally and to speak at a college. On Friday, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard is scheduled to lead a Lamb rally in a district that has more than 80,000 voters in union households.

Lamb, who has raised more money than his opponent, has prepared a series of 11th-hour campaign ads stressing his opposition to cuts in Medicare or Social Security and in favor of more support for teachers and cops, union rights and campaign-finance reforms.

Outside pro-Republican groups have spent millions attacking Lamb as a Nancy-Pelosi-loving left winger despite his centrist positions and pledge, if elected, not to support Pelosi for party leader.

Whichever way the vote goes, a victory could be short-lived. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew new congressional district lines for the May primaries and November general election, and neither candidate lives in the new district that would be formed by the court's plan. Thus, whoever wins will have to decide whether to run in a new adjoining district in two months.

Albert Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View, was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.