President Donald Trump is diving into a Pennsylvania congressional race on Saturday — a must-win for Republicans as they try to tamp down worries of a Democratic wave in November’s midterm elections.
Trump will appear at an evening rally for Rick Saccone, a state representative who faces Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election on Tuesday. The president is set to speak in an airplane hangar at Pittsburgh International Airport, in Moon Township, in an event starting at 7 p.m. ET.
Trump will likely promote his new tariffs on steel and aluminum, which are popular in the district in the heart of steel country. Aides had considered holding a signing ceremony for the tariffs during his visit. But Lamb also supports the duties, so the issue isn’t as effective a wedge for Saccone and Trump as it might otherwise be.
The visit is a politically risky one for Trump — Saccone has lost his early lead in the race as Democrats in the district, with an anti-Trump message, gained momentum. A Republican loss would be embarrassing for the president and another sign of a weakened party heading into the midterm elections that will decide control of Congress.
The president last visited the area in January for an event promoting his tax law. The White House insisted that trip was strictly for official business, though Trump said his goals were political. “Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13),” he said on Twitter at the time. “Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!”
The district has long been in Republican hands. Trump won it by 19 points in 2016, but Saccone is in much weaker shape. Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former assistant U.S. attorney, led by 3 points in an Emerson College poll released last week. A Gravis Marketing poll that had Saccone up by 12 points in January found his edge was down to just 3 points by this week. Both results were within the margin of error.
The seat became vacant when Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican and abortion opponent, resigned in October after it was learned that he had encouraged a woman he was having an affair with to terminate her pregnancy.
Now a Toss-Up
Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political forecasting unit of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, shifted the race on Thursday from Republican-leaning to a toss-up, pointing to Lamb’s strong fundraising and the lack of impact of Republican advertising promoting tax cuts.
Still, Saccone, 60, a conservative Air Force veteran and former college professor, appeared hopeful that the association with Trump could pull him over the finish line. “We’ve got Donald Trump. We’ve got his son. We’ve had Ivanka. What does the other side have? They have crazy uncle Joe Biden,” Saccone said Wednesday as the former vice president visited the district.
Trump administration officials including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta have also campaigned for Saccone.
Even if Saccone wins, a narrow margin of victory could show that Democrats are competitive in places they hadn’t been recently, forcing Republicans to spend time and money defending what had been safe congressional seats.
National Republican groups and their allies have spent more than $10 million in TV ads on behalf of Saccone, who’s lagged far behind Lamb in fundraising.
Some Republican operatives working on the campaign have cited that fundraising differential — Lamb has raised $3.9 million through Feb. 21 compared with $918,000 by Saccone — as one of the reasons the Democrat has made this a competitive race.
Trump had been scheduled to campaign in the Pittsburgh area in February, but that trip was scrapped after 17 people were killed in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting on Feb. 14.