• Politics
  • Pennsylvania

Republicans Tried Desperately to Save the Pennsylvania Special Election. They Still May Lose.

6 minute read

Having already sampled the milk chocolate and the pretzel rods at a local candy shop here, Donald Trump Jr. is ordering some ice cream Monday afternoon. Unable to choose between Cookies N’ Cream and Deep Dish Apple Pie, he chooses both, to the delight of the woman behind the counter. “If I keep working down the list, I’m gonna end up with, like, five scoops,” he says, while reporters and a pair of Japanese tourists look on. Behind him trails a mustachioed man. After Trump receives his dessert, the man orders his own. “Yeah, just one scoop,” he says forlornly.

This man is Rick Saccone, a state representative and the Republican candidate in Tuesday’s special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district. Trump is in town to stump for him, just as his father, the President, was on Saturday night. In both instances, the respective Donalds took center stage, with the congressional candidate seemingly resigned to his spot as a supporting player.

The visits were part of a desperate, multi-million dollar Hail Mary by the national Republican Party to avoid another embarrassing loss ahead of this fall’s midterms. The race should be Saccone’s for the taking. The 18th district is a region of shuttered coal mines and steel mills that went for Trump by nearly 20 points in the 2016 presidential election. But Saccone, a 60-year-old Christian conservative who once dubbed himself “Trump before Trump was Trump,” is trailing his opponent, moderate Democrat Conor Lamb, by six points a day ahead of the vote, according to a Monmouth University poll released Monday. According to Politico, Republicans have spent $8 million on television ads alone in the state, twice as much as the Democrats have.

Read More: Pennsylvania’s Closely Watched Special Election Is Tuesday

“They’re trying to stave off what the Democrats see as momentum,” Republican strategist Doug Heye says of the Republican push for Saccone. “We tend to over-inflate the meaning of special elections. But in this case, we’ve seen more than twice as many House Republican retirements as Democrats, and we’re hearing lots of concern that if we lose this seat as well, we could see six or seven members pull the plug in the next week.”

Meanwhile, the national media has descended upon the coal towns outside Pittsburgh to cover the election. And the locals — the retired and laid-off miners and steelworkers who have a steep personal investment in the outcome of this race — find themselves annoyed by all the noise.

“This is supposed to be about a congressional race here—what’s important is food stamps, Family and Medical Leave—and it’s all Trump, Trump, Trump!” says Tony Ross, an unemployed steel worker who ventured to the candy shop to see what the commotion was about. He identifies politically as an independent. “It’s like, two scoops of ice cream for Trump, one scoop for the candidate. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture? $11 million dollars, and it’s all about Trump!”

This resentment is shared by Republican political operatives. Last week, Politico cited more than 20 party officials and strategists who bemoaned Saccone’s failings as a candidate. Lamb has raised nearly $4 million dollars; Saccone can boast just one-fifth of that, and has relied heavily on Republican outside groups to bankroll much of his campaign.

Pennsylvania politicos, meanwhile, are baffled by the Republicans’ decision to put Saccone on the ballot. It was a sensitive moment for the party in the state: after all, this election was forced by the resignation of Rep. Tim Murphy, an anti-abortion Republican who reportedly had an extramarital affair and urged the woman in question to get an abortion when he thought she was pregnant. The party had hoped to replace Murphy with a social conservative who was sensitive to the economic concerns of blue-collar voters.

“Saccone doesn’t work very hard, he’s kind of goofy, he can’t raise money — and he doesn’t understand the historical context of labor in that end of the state,” says one political operative with experience in Pennsylvania. “He’s conventionally conservative. All the signs were there for them to realize that this could be a problematic pick.”

The signs of trouble go beyond Pennsylvania. Though the party has notched several victories in special elections since Trump took office, it has underperformed in some of them. And in December the GOP suffered an embarrassing loss when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race after several women accused Moore of improper sexual conduct. With the 2018 midterms just eight months away and Democrats bidding to retake the House, a loss in a red district would make matters worse.

With less than a day to go until polls open, Republicans say they’re cautiously optimistic that Saccone has a path to victory. “Polling in a special election race is notoriously hard,” Heye says. “They certainly still think he has a chance.”

But if the energy on the ground is any indication, the trajectory appears to favor Lamb. On Sunday, more than a hundred current and former coal miners turned out for a union meeting featuring the Democrat as a headline speaker; more than once, they jumped to their feet for him in applause. “He’s young blood,” says Ralph Rankin, a retired highway worker. “And we need to get more enthusiasm going again for the Democratic Party.”

Beyond any national harbinger, a Lamb win could mark for southwestern Pennsylvania a return to its roots. Though the 18th congressional district went for both Trump in 2016 and Romney in 2012 by more than 15 points, its registered voters are still largely Democratic. Many of them, particularly the union members tied to the region’s industries, are relieved to have a desirable choice from their own party.

“Clinton lost because the Democratic Party had failed to deliver on labor for 20 years — they got lost along the way, and that’s why the electoral college said ‘we’ve had enough of this bullsh-t,'” says Ross, the former steelworker outside of the candy shop where Saccone and Trump are stumping. “There’s a whisper vote here, just like there was a whisper vote for Trump that shocked everybody. But if the Democrats don’t stay home, it’ll go the other way.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com