Trump will travel to southwestern Pennsylvania next week in an effort to avoid a second electoral embarrassment in two months.
The White House is scrambling to avoid another special election disaster, this time in a Pennsylvania congressional district in the heart of Trump country.
After a humiliating loss in the Alabama Senate race last month, the administration is drawing up ambitious plans that will kick off next Thursday when Trump travels to the conservative district to appear with Republican candidate Rick Saccone. Vice President Mike Pence and an assortment of Cabinet officials are also expected to make trips; Pence may go twice ahead of the March 13 special election, two administration officials said.
The White House has taken an especially keen interest in the race: Members of Trump’s political affairs office met with Saccone this week. And during a Tuesday conference call between the Republican national party committees and the Saccone campaign, White House political director Bill Stepien expressed displeasure with the progress the candidate was making on fundraising. Stepien said Saccone wasn’t raising enough money and asked for an update on the campaign’s progress in the days to come.
Trump’s visit to the district next week will take him to a manufacturing plant outside Pittsburgh. The president plans to use the ostensibly official trip to promote the recently passed tax reform plan.
It is unusual for a White House to expend so much political capital on a single House race, particularly in what’s typically seen as a safe Republican district. But the involvement underscores the high stakes confronting the administration as it approaches a midterm election in which the party’s hold on the House majority is in grave danger. A loss in the working class Pennsylvania district, which the president won by 20 percentage points, would show that few GOP seats are safe.
Republicans have reason to worry. Aside from his anemic fundraising, Saccone, a Trump-aligned state representative, is facing a telegenic opponent in Democrat Conor Lamb, an Ivy League-educated 33-year-old attorney and Marine Corps veteran. The special election was triggered in October, when former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy resigned amid allegations that he asked a woman he was having an affair with to get an abortion.
The contest was discussed at a private weekend sit-down between Trump and congressional leaders at Camp David last weekend. During the meeting, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a sobering presentation on the election landscape in which he underscored the historic tendency for the party in power to lose seats in a president’s first midterm. McCarthy, according to two people familiar with the discussion, made a broad ask for assistance from the White House and warned that a loss of the House majority could have profound consequences for Trump’s administration.
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who is retiring, pointed out that his party has underperformed in a series of special elections since the president took office.
“I hope that doesn’t happen in southwestern Pennsylvania because that’s a Trump district and the outcome there could have repercussions for the midterms more broadly,” Dent said in an interview. “It should go Republican, but in this environment one can never take anything for granted.”
The outcome could also have consequences for the White House political office, which is attempting to corral the Republican Party machinery ahead of a brutal midterm season. This week, the White House, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, began holding what is expected to be a regularly scheduled conference call to coordinate their activities on the race.
Behind the scenes, the party is taking additional steps to prepare. The RNC has two field staffers on the ground and has begun executing a get-out-the-vote plan that was approved by the White House. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the principal pro-House GOP super PAC, opened an office in the district and has dispatched 50 door-knockers there. The conservative outside group Ending Spending has announced plans to invest $1 million on TV ads, and 45Committee, a pro-Trump outside group, is set to launch a $500,000 media campaign.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, is still deliberating how much it will spend. The committee has met with Saccone on several occasions, including this week.
Former Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Phil English said he expects deluge of money from both parties to pour in. Democrats want to prove a wave is forming, he said, and Republicans are eager to slow their momentum.
“This is a district where the dynamics of Mr. Trump are a significant factor. This will be a telltale of how the national elections are going,” said English. “It’s going to show evidence both ways of Trump’s strength and his challenges at that point.”
Though Trump’s popularity has plummeted in many parts of the country, senior Republicans have determined that the president’s involvement will help Saccone. Democrats enjoy a registration advantage in the district, which has a big presence of organized labor. But it is reliably conservative territory — the kind that Trump appealed to in 2016, when he campaigned on issues like trade and infrastructure.
Vince Galko, a veteran Republican strategist in the state, predicted that Trump would help Saccone win over conservative Democrats who rejected Hillary Clinton and are repelled by national liberals.
“If President Trump or Vice President Pence go there to campaign, it will help with GOP turnout and may re-engage the Trump Democrats who believe the Democrat of today looks nothing like that of their parents and grandparents,” said Galko. “I don’t see the Democrats having a surrogate to send. Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo just don’t identify with their own party in southwestern Pennsylvania.”
Saccone has presented himself as a staunch ally of the president, praising Trump for the job he’s done and vowing to help enact his policies. Lamb, meanwhile, has struck a delicate balance. While saying that he didn’t vote for Trump and pointing to his failure to pass an infrastructure bill, he has also praised the president for declaring the opioid epidemic, which has severely affected the district, a public health emergency.
In an interview with a Pittsburgh television station that aired this week, Lamb made clear he is open to collaborating with the White House and Republicans. “I want to work with the other side,” he said. “I want to get things done.”
Some Republicans are shrugging off concerns about the race. Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, a Republican from the northwestern part of the state, said the president’s support for Saccone would go a long way for the candidate — describing it as “huge.”
“I expect us to win,” said Kelly. “The margin of victory is probably more up for debate than anything else.”