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In tight Pennsylvania race, GOP struggles to land a blow against Conor Lamb

Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, talks about his campaign at his headquarters in Mount Lebanon, Pa. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. — First, Republicans in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District accused Democrat Conor Lamb of supporting Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House.

Next, they talked up the tax cuts that the GOP had passed through Congress in December.

Most recently, the GOP turned, perhaps desperately, to a different audience — Democrats, some of whom in Allegheny County began receiving cheeky direct mail thanking Lamb for protecting “our Second Amendment rights.”

The race in the 18th District, which was drawn to safely reelect a Republican congressman, only to see him resign last year, has closed to single digits despite an onslaught of Republican spending. On the air and in mailboxes, it has previewed many of the attacks Republicans may use this year to protect their control of the House of Representatives.

Despite Lamb and allies being outspent by Republicans, the GOP’s Rick Saccone lost much of his lead, according to public polls. With President Trump expected make a pre-election campaign stop on March 10 — his second visit to the district — the Pennsylvania race has found Republicans nervously changing both positive messaging and attack lines, with little of it appearing to stick.

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Lamb is hard to pin down on the issues they are throwing at him. At the only televised debate with Saccone, held after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Lamb said he favored enhanced background checks but did not want to act hastily on more gun legislation.

He also has declared that he won’t support Pelosi for speaker. He is not ready for universal Medicare or a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

On Thursday, the administration offered Saccone a possible boost by announcing new tariffs on foreign steel. In a statement, Saccone’s campaign endorsed the proposal, saying that the candidate “supports free trade as long as its fair” and that “if other countries aren’t playing by the rules and tariffs are needed to protect steel and aluminum jobs in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Rick would support those measures.”

Democrat in Pennsylvania race won’t back Pelosi

But other Republicans say they are not counting on that policy to sink Lamb.

Lamb has also gone on the ­attack in his five-minute stump speech. “Dark money,” he says, is distorting the election in the 18th District, while his donors are spending an average of $33 per person to stop them.

“We hear they’re going to spend almost $1 million every single day until the election on March 13,” Lamb said Wednesday night at an Irish-themed, open-bar rally in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. “They’ve lied about my record. They’ve lied about my opponent’s record. They’re trying to drown out the truth and drown out your voice.”

Saccone, a conservative member of the Pennsylvania House, argued in an interview that the Democrat was evading some attacks by refusing to take clear positions. Lamb was from the wrong party in a district that gave Trump a 19-point victory in 2016, and on a good day, he was able to blur his associations with national Democrats, Saccone said. His surrogates in the race — Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, and next week former vice president Joe Biden — are not associated with the party’s left.

“Conor the chameleon has been trying to pretend he’s somebody he isn’t, since the beginning,” Saccone said. “He goes wherever the polls tell him.”

As of Feb. 27, Republican-aligned groups had spent $9.1 million on the race, led by the Congressional Leadership Fund with $2,972,150 and the National Republican Congressional Committee with $2,833,945. Democratic groups and labor unions, led by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had spent just $855,591.

Most of the Republican spending went to ads, the majority of which tried to center the race on Pelosi and the Republican-backed tax cuts. In the CLF’s own polling, Pelosi’s favorable rating in the district is 28 percent; as in the 2017 races, no Democratic name they tested had lower numbers.

Lamb, however, said in early January that he would oppose Pelosi for speaker, a pledge he repeats in an ad his campaign is now running in Pittsburgh’s media market. Democratic voters who might have been alienated by his turn away from Pelosi have given him a pass on the question.

“I agree with him,” said Bill Luther, 65, a retiree who showed up at Lamb’s Wednesday rally in a sweatshirt promoting the left-wing YouTube channel the Young Turks. “I’m tired of the establishment Democrats, too.”

Nearly as many ads, both against Lamb and for Saccone, said that the Democrat could not be trusted to protect the tax cuts, which have been rising in popularity in national polls. One flashed an image of PNC’s Pittsburgh headquarters and touted the bonuses that the bank had handed out after the tax cut.

Quietly, the tax-cut ads have cycled out of the major buys. Just one commercial now on air mentions the tax cuts, and the NRCC’s commercials have turned to attacking Lamb’s work as an assistant U.S. attorney, branding him as soft on crime because two people he helped prosecute ended up with some charges dropped.

Saccone has distanced himself from some of the ads. An author who has written extensively on North Korea, he has tried to turn the race to foreign policy, to little avail.

“The ads that I’ve run are about me,” he said. “I haven’t run anything negative. It’s record over rhetoric for me.”

Saccone’s attempts to tie himself to the Trump administration, which is popular in the district, have been complicated by the unpredictable president himself. Saccone’s latest ad, which began airing on Feb. 20, focused on the much-discussed Republican infrastructure proposal and said Saccone would support “$1.5 trillion to rebuild roads and bridges.”

The proposal has largely disappeared from the national conversation, with congressional Republicans skeptical that it can be turned into working legislation. And its funding structure — $200 billion from the federal government, with states and municipalities filling the gap — has been roundly panned in southwest Pennsylvania.

“It’s basically paid for by local communities,” said Rich Fitzgerald, the Democratic executive of Allegheny County, and a Lamb supporter. “The policies coming out of Washington are not targeted toward working people, and not targeted toward southwest Pennsylvania.”

In interviews, local Democrats responded to those ads like they’d responded to Pelosi — by giving Lamb a mulligan.

Mykie Reidy, a liberal activist who had protested the former Republican congressmen, Tim Murphy, and then launched a group called Progress18PA to flip the district, said that the candidate had always been careful on guns.

“Instead of playing a card when emotions were high, he was saying this route would be more useful, more beneficial,” Reidy said. “Did I have to talk a bunch of people off the ledge? Yes. But then I spoke to a friend of mine who’s been active in trying to end gun violence, and what he said was that Conor’s position was almost 100 percent in line with the position of Moms Demand Action.”

Judy Petty, 77, said that she had also disagreed with Lamb. But she made a point of saying that Wednesday night’s rally was her first for any politician since she saw John F. Kennedy speak in 1960.

“I’m not a single-issue voter,” Petty said. “I want to stop Trump.”

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