GOP darling in March, Rick Saccone now fights for party support in race against Guy Reschenthaler
What a difference two months can make in the life of a Pennsylvania politician.
State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, was President Trump's darling in a March special election to fill the vacant seat in the former 18th Congressional District. The Air Force veteran scored two campaign visits from the president , as well as visits from Vice President Mike Pence and two Trump family members along with about $11 million in campaign backing from national Republican PACs.
Then the 60-year-old veteran lawmaker narrowly lost what many considered a safe Republican seat to Democratic newcomer Conor Lamb, 33.
Now as Saccone enters the final days of his campaign for the Republican nomination in the new 14th Congressional District, he's dodging blowback from party regulars lining up behind state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson Hills. And not a peep has been heard from Trump since the special election loss.
Reschenthaler, 35, a former Navy prosecutor and first term lawmaker, is not letting Republicans forget they chose a loser when they chose Saccone over him to run in the special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy.
Republicans at many levels who supported Saccone in March have come out for Reschenthaler, said his spokesman Mike DeVanney.
"They know he's the best candidate, the most electable candidate," DeVanney said. "He's a proven winner in tough fights. They tried before with Rick Saccone and that did not work."
State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said as much Friday in a lengthy Facebook post.
"I don't believe anyone who voted for Saccone during the conferee process could have imagined that he would run such a terrible campaign, and after $11 million spent on his behalf, would have lost that safe Republican seat," Ward told the Tribune-Review. "Personally, I don't think we can afford to take that risk again. I want to be clear that this isn't personal as I think Rick is a good person."
Saccone spokeswoman Caitlin Carlisle said party insiders are discounting Saccone's base.
"Rick has been and will continue to be energized by the grassroots support he receives from the many great conservative Republicans in Southwest Pennsylvania," Carlisle wrote in an email. "Rick is not deterred by these insiders' false narratives, and he continues to campaign hard as we enter the homestretch. Yes, the constant negative and false attacks from his opponent and his allies have been hard on him and his family. Some politicians will say anything to get elected. This is unfortunate and wrong."
Like Reschenthaler, Ward was among the unsuccessful candidates who vied for the GOP nod at the party convention where Saccone was chosen to run in the special election. Ward first came out for Reschenthaler shortly after he announced his candidacy in the new district.
The new 14th District includes all of Washington, Greene and Fayette counties and half of Westmoreland county. Ward noted, however, that Westmoreland accounts for nearly half — 46 percent — of the district's voters, and the county has more Republican primary voters than the other three counties combined.
Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania's junior senator, and Murphy, who abruptly resigned in the midst of a sex scandal, also endorsed Reschenthaler. Murphy's campaign fund gave $200,000 to Conservatives for PA, a super PAC that backs Reschenthaler.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, is among a group of state House members backing Saccone.
"It's disappointing that two candidates within the party are going at each other at this level. But I'm confident whoever wins, the party will be 100 percent behind him," Nelson said.
Political scientist and Republican state committeeman Joe DiSarro of Washington & Jefferson College predicted the outcome of Tuesday's Republican primary will swing on turnout.
"I think Rick probably still is slightly ahead, but it's within the margin of error. If the turnout is 30 percent or lower, he'll probably win. If it's higher, then Reschenthaler will win," DiSarro said.
DiSarro said Saccone spent a lot of political capital in the special election and nearly beat Lamb, who he described as a young attractive candidate, "a combination of Kennedy and Obama wrapped into a moderate pro life, pro second amendment Democrat."
"Rick was up against a difficult-to-defeat candidate, given his persona and his age," DiSarro said. "Saccone represented politics as they are today. Conor Lamb represented the future. Is Rick up against the same thing with Guy Reschenthaler? I think so."
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or email@example.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.