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Albert R. Hunt: GOP aims to keep 18th Congressional District from Dems

| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 8:55 p.m.
Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, are running for Congress in a March 13 special election.
Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, are running for Congress in a March 13 special election.

Canonsburg, Pa., is Trump country. A March 13 special congressional election there makes it a pretty good place to test whether President Donald Trump's standing is eroding or not.

Republican Congressman Tim Murphy represented Southwestern Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District for 14 years until he resigned amid scandal in October. Mostly rural, with small towns and a slice of Pittsburgh suburbs, it should be a slam-dunk for Republicans. Trump carried it by 19 percentage points and Murphy ran unopposed in the last two elections. But Democrats think they have a shot.

There are interesting crosscurrents.

The Democratic candidate, 33-year-old Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran with family roots in the area, is youthful and polished on the stump. The Republican, state Rep. Rick Saccone, a 59-year-old ex-Air Force officer with a doctorate in international affairs, counters with legislative experience and proven success with voters. There's enthusiasm for the Democrat, while Republicans have an embedded political infrastructure. Both sides agree that Trump would carry the district in an election held today, and also that his support has slipped since November.

The federal tax overhaul will be a focus of debate in the final month before the balloting. Saccone, who says he's going to Washington to help Trump, is a big booster. Lamb, who says he says he's going to Washington to bring change and work across the aisle, argues that the tax cut won't help working-class Pennsylvanians and that it presages cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

National Republicans fear the shock waves that will strike if they lose a district that wasn't even on the radar screen four months ago, when news broke that Murphy, a self-proclaimed family-values conservative, had urged his lover to have an abortion. He soon resigned.

GOP manpower and money are pouring in to attack Lamb, portraying him as a left-wing lackey for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Lamb has said he would not support her for party leader, saying he'd favor a new leadership generation.

Saccone is one of the state Legislature's most conservative members. The district is culturally conservative, but its voters also include more than 80,000 union households and labor is energized for Lamb.

While Saccone cites his political experience, Lamb says he is part of a new outsider breed. Some liberals in the district complain that he is too centrist, pro-gun and Trump-tolerant. But even Republican strategists acknowledge that anti-Trump passions will drive those voters to Lamb.

National Democratic groups are starting to invest in the campaign, but so far have delivered only a fraction of the outside Republican contributions. That may not be enough, said Terry Madonna, Franklin & Marshall College professor, a leading expert on Pennsylvania politics.

“This race may be winnable for Democrats,” Madonna said, “but they don't have much time.”

Albert R. Hunt, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a former Bloomberg News executive editor and Wall Street Journal reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor.

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