- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2018

CARNEGIE, Pa. — Democrat Conor Lamb is siding with President Trump and Republicans following the school shooting in Florida, saying the best way to stop these horrific events is to enforce the laws on the books and keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill.

The response also puts him in line with his Republican rival, Rick Saccone, in their special election for the open House seat in western Pennsylvania and flies in the face of calls from former President Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington for stricter gun laws.

“I don’t have a relationship with the national party on the issue of guns,” Mr. Lamb said. “I have a relationship with the people of western Pennsylvania.”

“Those are the only people I care about, the only people I think about,” Mr. Lamb said. “That is who I am running to represent, and I think broadly they agreed with me that we could do a much better job enforcing what we have.”

Mr. Saccone, meanwhile, insists that Mr. Lamb’s posture on guns is part of a broader political charade aimed at tricking voters.

“I’m pro-gun, I’m pro-life — he’s not,” Mr. Saccone, an Air Force veteran, told The Washington Times. “In the beginning, he was against Trump, and now he’s like, ‘I am not running against President Trump.’”

The March 13 special election has become a race to define Mr. Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine who left his job as an assistant federal prosecutor to launch his first bid for elected office.

Mr. Lamb is casting himself as a moderate Democrat. After recent mass shootings, he has maintained that Congress should invest more in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the background check system.

“I worked in law enforcement and violent crime and gun crime, specifically, and I believe we have pretty good law on the books,” he said after the Florida shooting. “The mental health aspect of it is to me the most important.”

He says he is open to looking at expanded background checks for online gun sales, and he has voiced opposition to an assault weapons ban.

‘So phoney’

Mr. Saccone, who served as a diplomat in North Korea, said liberals will use the shooting as an excuse to try to disarm law-abiding citizens. Mr. Lamb, the Republican says, is trying to muddy the waters on cultural issues that have crippled national Democrats in small towns and exurbs across the country — including in his congressional district. The district stretches from the suburbs south of Pittsburgh to the rural counties along the state’s border with West Virginia.

“It is so phony it is unbelievable,” he said. “He is no Second Amendment guy — come on.”

Mr. Saccone said Mr. Lamb is supported by an anti-Israel group and “radical left-wing Democrats” and has been mentored by Rep. Michael F. Doyle, a Democrat who represents the nearby 14th Congressional District.

Mr. Doyle, Mr. Saccone has said, is “Nancy Pelosi’s sock puppet.”

“They will portray him as someone he is not,” Mr. Saccone said of Mr. Lamb and his allies.

“He is moving towards me to try to look like me, and then he will go right back to the left.”

This race is being viewed as a barometer for the fall midterm elections.

Mr. Trump won the 18th Congressional District by nearly 20 points, and Republicans have held the seat for over a decade.

Still, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 70,000, and the district is home to tens of thousands of union members.

Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have campaigned with Mr. Saccone. Mr. Lamb has campaigned alongside Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, and former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to visit the area before Election Day.

Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who held the seat since 2003, vacated it last year after he was accused of encouraging a mistress to have an abortion.

‘Loves to shoot’

In his first campaign ad, Mr. Lamb introduced himself to television viewers as a graduate of a local Catholic high school, highlighted his service in the military and in the U.S. attorney’s office for western Pennsylvania.

He also slipped in a clip of him firing an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle — the gun that many Democrats want banned.

“Still loves to shoot,” the narrator says.

On the stump, Mr. Lamb has passed on opportunities to criticize Mr. Trump and said it is time for Mrs. Pelosi’s 15-year reign as Democratic leader in the House to come to an end.

He said he wants to make health care more affordable but doesn’t support Sen. Bernard Sanders’ Medicare-for-all legislation, citing cost concerns. He says he is pro-union but doesn’t support a $15-per-hour minimum wage, worried that it could put too much of a financial strain on some mom-and-pop shops.

He also is vowing to bolster jobs, improve roads and bridges, battle the opioid epidemic and protect Social Security for voters who have paid into the system.

Jon Bauman, president of the Social Security Works PAC, also known as “Bowzer” from the band Sha Na Na, said Mr. Lamb is smart to run on Social Security because the district has a large elderly population and because voters are frustrated with Mr. Trump for going back on his campaign promise not to seek cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

“It is an issue that cuts across party lines, unlike any other issue,” Mr. Bauman said before endorsing Mr. Lamb at a campaign event.

Different breed

State Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, who represents this area, said voters are not looking for liberal warriors or elected leaders who are all-consumed with issues such as immigration.

They want people to concentrate on promoting the middle class, keeping a check on taxes, bolstering the jobs market and investing in good schools, she said.

“Western PA Democrats are conservative,” Mrs. Astorino Kulik said. “We are pro-life and pro-gun.’

“Western PA Democrats are a different breed,” she said.

“I think the turnoff on the national level is that you see the Democratic Party catering to fringe groups, not the middle class, hanging out with Hollywood types, and these folks don’t care about that, the majority of them,” she said. “It is just not important to them.”

She said Mr. Lamb’s message is resonating with the Roosevelt Democrats who live in the district and with union families.

A Monmouth University poll released last week showed Mr. Saccone clinging to a lead.

“Saccone has a slight edge, but it’s nowhere near the double-digit advantage Republicans typically enjoy in this district,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The potential for a Democratic surge like we have seen in other special elections helps Lamb stay in the hunt, but it does not close the gap entirely.”

Republicans are concerned that Mr. Saccone, who has struggled with fundraising and was known as a backbencher in the 203-member Pennsylvania House, could lose a winnable race, adding to the momentum that Democrats carried out of Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama special election in December.

Members of the Republican National Committee parachuted into the district on Friday to help prepare Mr. Saccone for a debate showdown with Mr. Lamb on Monday.

Perhaps best known for pushing legislation that would have mandated all schools to post “In God We Trust,” Mr. Saccone has said, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.”

The 60-year-old said the differences between the candidates are stark. If voters are seeking the most qualified and experienced people in Washington, he said, “then I am your man.”

“I have 40 years of life experience in five key areas: diplomacy, government, the legislature, military, academia, international business,” he said. “You put all those together in a time when our country is in turmoil and needs the most qualified, experienced people in Washington to handle the problems facing us like North Korea and terrorism and so forth. When you put that on the scale with my opponent, come on, there is no question [who is the better candidate]. It is not even a contest.”

Playing the Pelosi card

The airwaves, meanwhile, have been blanketed with ads from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and the National Republican Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, tying Mr. Lamb to Mrs. Pelosi and warning voters that Mr. Lamb “isn’t who he says he is.”

“CLF engaged early in the special election to define Conor Lamb as nothing more than a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda,” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the group. “We’ll continue to tie Lamb to Pelosi’s dangerous agenda, painting a clear contrast between conservative values and Pelosi’s liberal, out-of-touch policies.”

The message has energized conservatives.

“We can’t have a mirror image of Pelosi,” said Robin Savage, who runs an auto shop with her husband. “She scares me. She terrifies me.”

Mrs. Astorino Kulik, the state lawmaker, lamented that the commercials have worked — even on her own brother.

“He said, ‘I am not voting for Conor. He is a Pelosi person,’” Mrs. Astorino Kulik recalled. “I said, ‘No, he’s not.’”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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