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The first congressional election of 2018: A test of Trump in western Pennsylvania

Inside the fight for a pro-Trump district: Can the Democrats flip a conservative region in March? (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)
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HOUSTON, Pa. — It snowed the night before Conor Lamb's campaign rally, coating most of the 18th Congressional District and keeping some voters at home. But 70 loyal Democrats shoveled out and drove to the American Legion hall to meet their candidate for Congress in a district that gave Donald Trump a 19-point victory in 2016.

"I'm not running against the president," Lamb said. "But a coal mine just announced last week that it's closing. Coal-fired power plants have continued to close every 15 days since the president took office. People are tired of career politicians on both sides. They want results."

Democrats and Republicans agree that Lamb, 33, a Marine veteran and former assistant U.S. attorney, has turned the first congressional election of 2018 into a single-digit race. The district, a swath of southwest Pennsylvania drawn to reelect a Republican congressman — Tim Murphy, who resigned in disgrace last year — is already humming with super-PAC TV ads.

In 2014 and 2016, Democrats could not find a challenger to Murphy. But on Thursday, President Trump will visit the district for a speech about tax policy. Local Republicans consider the Trump speech a boon for state Rep. Rick Saccone, the GOP's nominee for the March 13 contest — a sign of just how much is at stake here, for Republicans and Democrats.

The race will test Trump's popularity in a district where that wasn't a question in 2016 — and perhaps provide a 2018 road map for both parties. Republicans will use last month's tax legislation as a GOP selling point, while Democrats will try to win back union households that broke overwhelmingly for Trump.

"It means everything to me that he's coming," Saccone, 59, said of Trump's visit in a short interview after he greeted voters at a gun show over the weekend. "My phone's blowing up with people saying, 'Hey, how can I come? How can I meet the president? This is Trump country.' "

Trump's visit, his first campaign appearance since he rallied for Senate candidate Roy Moore ahead of a special election in Alabama last month, is part of an expanding White House effort to hold the 18th District and boost Republicans' shaky confidence about this year's midterm elections.

Trump's political team has warned Saccone, who has won before with small war chests, to step up his fundraising. The 45Committee, a pro-Trump super PAC bankrolled by Republican donor Joe Ricketts, is spending at least $500,000 on TV ads bashing Lamb as a say-anything liberal; another Ricketts PAC, Ending Spending, is putting $1 million behind pro-Saccone ads.

A White House official, sketching out the administration's thinking, said that the Lamb-Saccone race would offer a blueprint for 2018. The president, whose approval rating has hovered under 40 percent nationally, will dive into districts where his numbers are stronger. Vice President Pence will campaign at least twice in the district, ahead of midterms where he is likely to stump for more candidates than Trump. As many as half a dozen Cabinet secretaries will head to the district, ready to argue that Trump policies are working for red America.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there to vote for it," Saccone said of the tax legislation. "Businesses are investing back in their employees. They're looking forward to an increase in their pay. When I talk to small-business owners, they say, 'I'm gonna hire three more employees,' or 'I'm gonna give employees part of the raise.' The Democrats have always been for spend, spend, spend — that's just ideology with them."

Lamb's strategy: Ignore those attacks. He tells audiences that he is needed in Washington to block House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and to protect health care and pensions. In early January, he said he'd oppose House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in any race for speaker, a break from the national party.

"The people running in this race are me and Rick Saccone," Lamb said in an interview. "I've been clear where I stand on the need for new leadership. He has not, except to say that he supports Paul Ryan, who supports coming after Social Security and Medicare. I think he'll have a lot of explaining to do about that."

Lamb, a first-time candidate whose family is well known in the greater Pittsburgh area, is betting that voters who used to be loyal Democrats can be convinced to come home. As recently as 2000, the largely rural district backed a Democratic candidate for president. In voter registration, Democrats still outnumber Republicans by about 70,000; like many of them, Lamb personally opposes abortion and supports gun rights. Even some Republicans acknowledge that Lamb has activated Democrats who had given up on the district.

"It's a low bar, because Democrats around here basically disappeared in 2016," said Michael Korns, the Republican chairman of conservative Westmoreland County. "I guess if they went anywhere with a Hillary sign or bumper sticker, it was just too brutal."

On the stump, Lamb has opposed much of the GOP's agenda from the populist left. He attacked the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which Republicans hope to turn into a vote-winner, not as a threat to the economy but as a threat to retirees and future taxpayers.

"We could have had a tax cut, and should have had a tax cut, without giving away a trillion dollars to the one percent and corporations," Lamb said after a rally here. "And when I say they gave it away, the rest of us are going to have to pay for that in the future. They're going to come for Social Security. They're going to come after Medicare. My kids are going to have to pay off that debt. There was no reason to add a trillion dollars to the debt to give people a tax cut. It's also not going to mean as much if people's premiums go up."

Republicans, who beat Lamb onto the airwaves, have run the cycle's first pro-tax-cut ads, arguing that the Democrat opposed money coming back to Pennsylvania families. The rest of their messages, familiar from last year's special elections — but awkwardly applied to Lamb — invoke Pelosi. Both the 45Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a super PAC aligned with Ryan, have responded to Lamb's denunciation of Pelosi by putting the Democratic leader's face in their ads.

"Whatever he says during the campaign has zero impact on the campaign we're about to run," said Corry Bliss, the CLF's executive director.

In the 45Committee's TV spot, photos of Pelosi and a tuxedo-clad Lamb are smashed together to make it look as though they're appearing at the same event (the photo of Lamb was taken at a Pittsburgh fundraiser for the Red Cross).

The CLF, which has concentrated on a ground game more than TV ads, is distributing a door hanger that invokes Pelosi's name three times, says Lamb was "part of Barack Obama's scandal-plagued and corrupt Department of Justice," and says that a vote for Saccone would help "Stop Hillary." Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, appears in the literature, Bliss said, because polling has found that "she's almost as unpopular in the district as Nancy Pelosi is."

Democrats don't deny that their national brand and many of their leaders are toxic in places such as southwest Pennsylvania. In interviews across the district, Republican voters winced or laughed at the mention of Pelosi. Several times, they quoted Pelosi's 2010 promise that the Affordable Care Act would become popular after voters saw its effects — a quote often mischaracterized to imply that Pelosi kept the bill's contents secret.

"I'll never forget how she said they had to vote for the health-care bill so they could see what was in it," said Keith Moore, a gun-range manager in the small city of Latrobe.

Lamb, who both sides agree has probably outraised Saccone, has tried to turn the Republican ads to his advantage. At rallies and on Twitter, he has ribbed Ricketts, who owns the Chicago Cubs, by waving a Pittsburgh Pirates hat; after the 45Committee's ad went live, he asked donors to "fight back" against an out-of-state super PAC.

Saccone has given Lamb another populist opening — a chance to be the candidate of organized labor. Murphy, a conservative on most issues, had regularly won the support of the 18th District's unions by backing their priorities in Congress. Saccone, who favors right-to-work legislation, has no shot at that support; according to Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder, he never returned an issue questionnaire, leading the union to unanimously endorse Lamb.

"Show me the jobs!" Snyder said at Lamb's rally. "Bringing coal back again? They're closing down another coal mine. Bringing steel back? Where's the jobs?"

Saccone scoffed at the idea that labor could swing votes against him. "The union members have always voted for me," he said. "Their leadership has never represented their members, and they know that."

Korns, who said that the tax cuts had revved up loyal Republican voters, argued that the choice on March 13 would be even simpler. Lamb wouldn't support the president, and Saccone would.

"He's the best candidate to connect with the Trump voters in Westmoreland and Washington counties, and that's the key to winning this district," Korns said. "Democrats are trying to make this a race when I don't think there's gonna be much of one."

Ashley Parker contributed to this report.

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