- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2018

Republicans are taking steps to shore up their candidate in the next special election test of President Trump’s political mojo, with analysts saying the GOP stands a real risk of losing another deep-red seat.

The March 13 race in western Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District pits another Trump-before-there-was-Trump Republican, state Rep. Rick Saccone, against Democratic candidate Conor Lamb.

The race is garnering national attention in part because some see it as a possible replay of the recent race in Alabama where the Democrat ran, successfully, to the middle while the losing Republican ran toward Mr. Trump.

“In this mix, Republican Saccone’s perceived ultraconservatism, coupled with Lambs’ perceived moderation, and Trump’s unquestioned unpopularity, could nationalize the race — nationalizing it may bring a Democratic victory,” Pennsylvania political analysts G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young said in a recent breakdown of the race.

GOP leaders, looking to avoid that, have stepped in.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with House GOP leaders, announced last week it would open two offices in the district, which includes the suburbs of south Pittsburgh and counties in the southwest corner of the state that share a border with West Virginia. The group pledged 50-full time door-knockers and 250,000 voter contacts.

Republicans also seem content to nationalize the race.

“There are two stark choices: Nancy Pelosi’s handpicked candidate who will be nothing more than a foot soldier in her liberal war on America, or a proven conservative who will stand for Pennsylvania families and their values.” said Corry Bliss, the leadership fund’s executive director.

Marcel Groen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democrats, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Mr. Lamb flipping control of the seat.

“What is exciting about it is Conor is the kind of candidate that we need. His resume is great and it is in significant better than the person the Republicans picked,” Mr. Groen said. “[Saccone] is extremely conservative and Conor is the kind of person who fits the district. I am guessing that he would be a Blue Dog Democrat.”

Whether the national Democratic Party decides to invest will say a lot — particularly when the party committees are saving cash for November’s all-out battle for control of the House.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats, did not respond to requests for comment.

Longtime Republican operatives say they don’t see much danger in the race.

“The Democrats smell an opportunity when I am not sure that one is really there,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist. “I would say this is a clear opportunity for Republicans to get back on the winning track.”

Last year, the GOP managed to fend off a series of fierce challenges in special House elections, costing Democrats millions of dollars with no concrete gains. Still, most of those races saw the Democratic candidates close gaps in districts that aren’t usually competitive — suggesting the Trump boom of 2016 may be nearing it’s expiration date.

Alabama’s special Senate election last month saw a Democrat win a statewide contest in an ultra-red state, spurring Democrats’ hopes of big gains over the next 10 months.

Mr. Lamb is a former assistant federal prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran. He is the grandson of the late Tom Lamb, a political kingmaker from the Pittsburgh area who rose to become the Democratic majority leader in the state Senate.

Mr. Lamb is focusing his message on the economy and the work he has done fighting the opioid epidemic.

Mr. Saccone is an Air Force veteran who worked as a counter-intelligence officer focusing on North Korea. He wants to reduce the size and scope of government, reduce taxes and beef up military spending. He is pro-life and is a strong supporter of Second Amendment gun rights.

A big unknown in the race is whether the shape of the district actually could change before election day. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case over partisan gerrymandering that could lead to a redrawing of congressional districts.

Conservative Republican Tim Murphy had held the seat since 2003 before stepping down in October.

The district is home to a broad swath of working-class votes that played a major role in making Mr. Trump the first Republican to to carry the state since George H.W. Bush accomplished the feat in 1988.

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