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Guns, Trump and steel: Next week’s Pennsylvania special election a referendum on 2018’s hot-button issues

Guns, Trump and steel: Next week’s Pennsylvania special election a referendum on 2018’s hot-button issues

A March 13 special election in the heavily Republican-voting southwest corner of Pennsylvania has turned into a referendum on an array of hot-button issues, and the outcome could shape how candidates campaign around the country and affect debates over American trade policy in the year ahead.

The contest is between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb for the 18th District seat that opened when eight-term Rep. Tim Murphy resigned last October. Murphy, a member of the Pro-Life Caucus, quit following reports he had urged his mistress to consider an abortion. The special election has the potential to upend expectations about how safe even the reddest of Republican congressional districts will be in 2018, with implications for control of the House — and the fate of possible impeachment resolutions.

Trump won the district by nearly 20 points, and at the time of Murphy’s resignation National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers boasted, “The NRCC is undefeated in special elections this year, and I’m supremely confident that will continue.”

But newly energized activists had begun organizing against Murphy and other local Republicans shortly after Trump’s victory with the long-shot goal of taking back the district, which extends from the suburbs of the “Steel City” of Pittsburgh to the West Virginia border. With Murphy out of the way, they found in Lamb, a telegenic 33-year-old former prosecutor and first-time candidate, to embody their hopes.

Saccone, 60, is a state representative and former Air Force special investigator who improbably won his party’s nomination last fall after a falling-out between two other candidates. He is known for his pro-gun and conservative social positions and has said he wants to come to Washington to be Donald Trump’s “wingman.”

With just a few days to go until the election, Democrats are closer than they ever expected. In late February the  venerable Cook Political Report moved the race from “leans Republican” to “toss-up,” and recent public polling shows the candidates neck and neck — leading to cautious predictions that Lamb might become the first Democrat to win a hotly contested House special election since Trump took office. Republicans notably lost the special election for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat, and have lost three dozen state legislative seats across 2017 and 2018. Although Democratic House candidates have generally improved, often by large margins, on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote, heavily gerrymandered, highly conservative House districts have proved a formidable seawall against the predicted Democratic wave. If that wall fails here, the wave could become a tsunami.

“I promise you, if he wins you’re going to see probably another half a dozen Republicans say they’re not running again,” former vice president Joe Biden, a native son of Scranton, Pa., said Tuesday during a series of appearances in the district to stump for Lamb. Already a record number of Republican representatives have announced plans to retire, creating openings for the record number of Democratic challengers vying to run in the fall. Incumbent House members had a 97 percent reelection rate in 2016.</p>
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