The Next Big Battle Over Trumpism Happens in Pennsylvania Next Month
The special election in Pennsylvania is getting tighter. And the attack ads are getting a bit weirder.
Washington, PA—It was a frigid Saturday afternoon but Ellen Cicconi, a 53-year-old stay-at-home mom from Canonsburg, chose to brave the elements to check out the next great American political campaign playing out in her proverbial backyard.
In nearby Washington, a city about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh proper, Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran was opening up a new campaign office. And as he laid out his legislative and political vision for a crowd of more than 100, Cicconi stood nearby, watching attentively, hoping that this would be the next Democratic dent in Donald Trump’s political aura.
The room was packed and the campaign ran out of signs by the time Lamb had made his way around to greet and listen to voters. His supporters appeared to be a mix of Resistance moms, local Democrats, and mustachioed men in jean jackets. They had come not just to hear Lamb speak, but to walk through the cold and canvass on his behalf.
After Lamb finished making the rounds, the crowd departed, leaving behind a vacant, carpeted hall with a couple staffers, a pile of cookies that had not been eaten, and a piece of literature from an attendee, which warned about the possibility that President Trump—“an idiot”—would tweet an evacuation order during Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Cicconi, who has a Ph.D. in history and cares for two children with special needs, was there in search of hope. She had been left dismayed in 2016 when she noticed that there were barely any signs for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in her neighborhood (those that were there would often disappear in a matter of days). She felt like she was the lone person on her street who went to the booth and supported the Democratic nominee. She had been an independent prior to the election. But after Donald Trump became president, Cicconi decided to become a Democrat.
“It’s horrid, it’s the worst nightmare,” Cicconi described the administration in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I go to bed at night angry and I wake up in the morning afraid.”
Cicconi’s visceral displeasure with the Trump agenda is shared by millions of other liberals across the nation, which in turn has led to overwhelming Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey, shock wins in deep-red Alabama and coups in various statewide races across the country.
But it has yet to produce a major upset in a House race.
Lamb is hoping to change that this March, when the special election will be held. But it won’t be particularly easy. Though Democrats seem to have national momentum, the Republican brand appears to still be king in this district. While Lamb has shied away from his own party’s leadership, Rick Saccone, the GOP candidate in the race, has pledged to assist Trump as best he can.
In the heavily gerrymandered 18th district, where Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016, that may make sense. But these are odd political times too. Voters are furious and not just at Trump.
Andrea Szwarc, a 59-year-old respiratory therapist at the Washington hospital, used to attend district meetings in hopes of speaking with Representative Tim Murphy, the Republican congressman whose resignation in disgrace last year prompted the special election. She was admittedly not Murphy’s biggest fan. And then the news broke of the congressman’s attempts to have a woman with whom he was having an affair, get an abortion.
“I found out what an asshole he really is,” Szwarc said to The Daily Beast, before apologizing for cursing.
Lamb is a political neophyte who emphasizes his experience in the Marines, his work as a federal prosecutor on opioid cases, and safety net issues like Social Security and Medicare. He said he has no interest in making the race about Trump, or national Democrats for that matter. When he knocks on doors, Lamb said he hears universal frustration that lawmakers have failed to help the constituents they represents. His stump speech is based on fixing that. And if that means working with the President on particular issues, he said he is more than willing to do so.
“I’m not running against the president,” Lamb said in an interview with The Daily Beast adjacent to what used to be a heavy bank vault door in the back of his new campaign office. “And I’ll always say, that if he wants to do anything that creates jobs, especially on an infrastructure bill, which he is talking about finally, I’d love to work with him on infrastructure.”
A willingness to partner with Trump could cause Lamb fits among the progressive base, which was similarly disenchanted when then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam cut an ad saying he would do much the same. (Northam, notably, ended up winning by larger-than-expected margins.)
It certainly hasn’t won him any slack from the opposition. Republicans have branded Lamb as a rubber stamp for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, despite Lamb having said that he wouldn’t back Pelosi for another term as speaker should Democrats win back control of the House, a point he reiterated to The Daily Beast on Saturday.
“I told the press that I wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker or any other leadership position, but I think that is just kind of beside the point,” Lamb said. “Paul Ryan is the leader that we need to be talking about. And he’s the one that people around here at least know. He’s coming after their social security and Medicare, so they want him gone as well.”
In recent weeks, the race has tightened and money has begun to pour in. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), has spent $1.5 million in television ads. Pro-Trump super PACS have flooded the district with ads as well. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made a small investment of its own.
The fact that the Republican party is taking the race so seriously was in sharp view Friday when Vice President Mike Pence flew into the district for an event on Saccone’s behalf. That appearance came just weeks after the president himself swooped in to rally Saccone supporters. Trump, on top of that, is set to make a return trip in the coming weeks, Val DiGiorgio, the chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, promised on Friday.
The support has been financial too. In addition to the Friday afternoon campaign event, which led to the canceling of a bingo and line dancing event for seniors, Pence participated in a fundraiser for Saccone where $5,400 got supporters a picture with the vice president and $10,000 earned a meet and greet.
“There’s no one I’d rather have in my corner than Vice President Mike Pence,” Saccone told a crowd of around 150.
The money boost is needed. Though outside groups have rallied to Saccone’s side, Lamb has raised more than twice as much as the GOP candidate did in the last financial quarter of 2017.
A host of Pennsylvania Republicans joined Saccone to bolster his campaign as well. Their brief speeches were primarily oriented around promoting the massive tax cut measure Republicans passed late last year. They also took shots at Democrats for not standing and applauding more during President Trump’s State of the Union earlier this week. But the toughest, most personal, jabs came from Pence.
“Now, I’m not going to tell you much about Rick’s opponent today, because Rick’s opponent won’t tell Pennsylvania much about himself,” Pence said. “Conor Lamb won’t tell Pennsylvania voters his position on Obamacare. I heard he won’t say whether he supports your Second Amendment rights. I heard Conor Lamb won’t say whether he supports giving your hard-earned tax dollars to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.”
Lamb said he missed Pence’s remarks. But he seemed unconvinced that a national figure, whether from his party or the opposition’s, would prove determinative one way or another.
“They’re not going to let either one of us hide behind our national leadership,” Lamb told The Daily Beast referring to voters in the district. “[Saccone] has tied himself very closely to the national leaders of his party, to the point where he’s saying he’s running for them. I’m running for the people who live here.”
The case Republicans are making to voters in the 18th district is as much about the fears of what the opposition might do than running on the record they’ve amassed. In particular, there’s an aggressive effort to make the race a referendum on Pelosi, who is neither in power nor has stepped foot into the district on Lamb’s behalf.
The House Minority Leader is a persistent Republican boogeyman, who has served as a motivator for conservatives in numerous races in the past. The GOP consensus seems to be that a distaste for Pelosi will animate enough Republicans once more to ensure that Saccone becomes the district’s next congressman.
The National Republican Congressional Committee launched an ad last week using Lamb’s last name to call him a “follower” (Get it??). There are real overhead shots of lambs to drive the point home as well. An additional web video riffs on the same concept with a creepy rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
It may be unfair, considering Lamb’s comments on the House Minority Leader. But fairness isn’t the currency of electoral politics. And on Friday, Pence was insisting that, “The truth is Conor Lamb is just going to be another rubber stamp for liberal democrats in Washington D.C.”
The Lamb campaign has chosen, to a large degree, to try and rise above the attacks.
But there are some outside groups and some D.C. lawmakers who are trying to help Lamb, even if the campaign is sometimes ambivalent about the support. The organization New Politics, an outfit backing candidates who have previous military service, came to Lamb’s defense after Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), told the crowd on Friday that it was important to have a “real veteran” in Washington— which the group interpreted as an implicit dig at Lamb’s service in comparison to Saccone’s.
And Rep. Joe Kennedy’s (D-MA), just off a glossy-lipped response to the State of the Union, showed up in Allegheny County to support Lamb this past week though reporters only realized it had happened after a tweet from Lamb advising of the visit went up.
“At a time of record partisanship, Conor Lamb is the rare public servant capable of rising above party lines,” Kennedy told The Daily Beast in a statement after the fact. “He’s driven by the issues—from infrastructure and wages to opioid addiction and Social Security—and deeply connected to the local community he seeks to represent. It was fantastic to spend the day in Allegheny County with him, and I’m honored to support his campaign.”
Saccone, a mustachioed state representative who infamously said he was Trump before Trump was Trump, seems to know that he in for a fight even in this GOP-heavy district.
On Friday, he stood in the hallway of the Bethel Park Community Center in an Inspector Gadget trench coat greeting every supporter as they trickled in.
Holding court near a coffee vending machine was 62-year-old Bill Burkholder, a veteran from outside Pennsylvania’s 18th district who made shirts to support Saccone.
“We were going to support him when he was going to run for Senate but since he’s running for the House, wherever he goes, I’ll support him,” Burkholder, a veteran, told The Daily Beast. “His mind is where mine is when it comes to supporting the veterans. The veterans have been screwed a lot.”
Burkholder was initially drawn to Trump’s campaign because of promises to repeal and replace Obamacare as he said he lost his veterans insurance as a result.
“Saccone supports Trump so we support Saccone. It’s a domino effect.”
Maybe that’s just enough for the Republican party in this corner of Pennsylvania right now.