A special election Tuesday in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District has taken on national importance, looming as a possible bellwether heading into this year's midterms and drawing President Donald Trump to the Pittsburgh area for a political rally on Saturday.

The president won the 18th district handily in 2016, and has been supporting Republican candidate Rick Saccone, who is embroiled in a surprisingly tight campaign with Democrat Conor Lamb. They are battling to succeed Republican Tim Murphy, a publicly pro-life GOP congressman who resigned last year after reportedly encouraging his mistress to get an abortion.

Murphy easily won elections in the district, and Trump carried it by 20 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But Democrats see an opportunity to flip the district just two years later.

The Lamb-Saccone race is considered close – "nip and tuck,” said political analyst Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

Both sides have been spending millions of dollars and sending political heavy-hitters – including former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat – onto the campaign trail. This will be Trump's second visit to the district in 2018.

“If either candidate wins, I wouldn't be surprised,” Madonna said.

Trump is scheduled to give remarks at the Moon Township Atlantic Aviation hangar at Pittsburgh International Airport, beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The candidates

Saccone is a former Air Force counter-intelligence officer who served in Iraq. After retiring from the military, he worked as a diplomat in North Korea where, according to his biography, he was the only American living at the time. Saccone was part of counter-terror task forces for two Olympic Games: 1984 in Los Angeles and 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.

Saccone is a four-term member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Lamb, a Marine Corps veteran, former federal prosecutor, and self-identified Catholic, has taken pro-life and pro-Second Amendment stances. Those positions have likely benefitted Lamb in what has been a recently reliable district for Republicans, according to Madonna.

“If the Democrats had run a liberal, urban-based candidate, you and I wouldn't even be having this conversation,” Madonna said.

Democrats hope a Lamb victory or even strong showing – in such a pro-Trump region – could foreshadow possible success in the 2018 elections.

Pennsylvania's primary elections will be held Tuesday, May 15.

When Trump visited western Pennsylvania in January, he focused on the tax cuts he had just signed into law.

At that time, Trump called Saccone “a real friend and a spectacular man.”

Brandon Cwalina, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's press secretary, criticized Trump's policies and said: "Having Rick Saccone – who has bragged that he was Trump before Trump was Trump – in Congress would only exacerbate the cronyism that Trump has brought to D.C.”

This week, Sinceré Harris, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said: “Instead of moving Pennsylvania forward, typical politician Rick Saccone wants to join Trump in stripping health care away from Pennsylvanians, shipping Pennsylvania jobs overseas, and taking away workers' right. The people of PA-18 deserve a representative who will fight for good jobs, better infrastructure, and quality, affordable health care, and that person is clearly not Rick Saccone.”

Redistricting uncertainty

Additional drama is brought to the race due to Pennsylvania's looming decision on the future of its congressional districts.

The winner Tuesday will complete Murphy's term through the end of 2018 – and would immediately beginning running to retain the seat amid some uncertainty.

Recently, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania redrew the Congressional districts map after determining the one currently in place “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the commonwealth's Constitution due to excessive gerrymandering. Republicans are currently challenging the new map in federal court.

However, if the map is kept for this year's primary and general elections, Lamb would no longer live in the 18th. His Mount Lebanon residence would actually be in the newly drawn 17th district.

Saccone, of Elizabeth Township, would remain in the 18th.

Tariffs a key issue

On Thursday, Trump imposed tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports, except from Canada and Mexico. The 25-percent levy on steel could be a prominent issue in western Pennsylvania – where many communities, including Pittsburgh and Johnstown, were hard hit by the decline of the steel industry.

“I think some of the things that (the president) will be discussing is his goal of shoring up the steel industry and the aluminum industry,” said Jackie Kulback, chairwoman of the Cambria County Republican Committee and chief financial officer at Gautier Steel in Johnstown.

Former Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman Robert Gleason, a Johnstown resident, believes the tariffs issue can benefit the GOP candidate in the special election.

“I think the steel and aluminum tariffs will push Saccone over the top,” Gleason said. “That is a real local issue in the 18th.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

React to this story:


This Week's Circulars