MT. LEBANON, Pa. (AP) — Democrat Conor Lamb, fighting for an upset victory in a congressional district that Donald Trump easily won in 2016, insisted Tuesday as voters headed to the polls that the race wasn't about the larger-than-life personality in the White House.
"This didn't have much to do with President Trump," Lamb said after voting outside Pittsburgh, where he's locked in an unexpectedly tight race with Republican Rick Saccone in a special election that serves as a barometer ahead of November's midterm elections.
But the president himself has embedded his footprints in the race, campaigning twice in person and tweeting even more for Saccone as part of a full-court press by national GOP forces to avoid what would be an embarrassing defeat.
The bid by Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District has become symbolic of the larger national fight as both parties careen toward November for the first midterms of the Trump era.
Democrats must flip 24 GOP-held seats to reclaim a House majority, and no one was counting on this Pittsburgh-area district that Trump won by 20 percentage points in the presidential race to be in play. Longtime Republican congressman Tim Murphy was re-elected to the seat in 2016 without Democratic opposition for his eighth term.
But Murphy, who espoused strong anti-abortion views, resigned last fall amid revelations of an extramarital affair in which he urged his lover to get an abortion when they thought she was pregnant.
At his polling place in southern Allegheny County, Saccone downplayed the significance of the unusual competitiveness. "The Democrats ... they're throwing everything they can at this race," he said. "There hasn't been an open seat for a long time."
Besides bruising the president, a Lamb defeat also could shake Republican self-assurance that their new tax law is an omnipotent offense and defense in their midterm matchups.
With polls showing a tight race for months, Saccone has implored the GOP-leaning electorate that their choice is about "making America great again," just as the president says.
The 60-year-old Air Force veteran turned state lawmaker and college instructor enjoys enthusiastic backing from social conservatives who've anchored his state career, and he's perhaps at his most animated when he touts his opposition to abortion rights.
Yet Saccone struggled to raise money and stir the same passions that helped Trump sweep the industrial Midwest on his way to the White House. The consistent fundraising deficit has left him with limited resources to air the message he delivers one-on-one: His four decades of experience in the private sector, international business and now the legislature make voters' choice a no-brainer.
Ultimately, though, it's Saccone's embrace of Trump that would make the difference for him. He'll need plenty of voters like Brett Gelb, a 48-year-old fire technician who cast his ballot for Saccone in Lamb's home precinct. "Saccone backs a lot of President Trump's plans for the country," Gelb explained.
Lamb, meanwhile, has excited core Democrats and aimed for independents and moderate Republicans.
"We worked really hard for it," Lamb said at his polling place.
He did it as national Republican groups filled airwaves and social media with depictions of the first-time candidate as little more than a lemming for Nancy Pelosi — the California Democrat, House minority leader and GOP punching bag.
Seemingly embracing the attacks, Lamb countered with an ad calling it all "a big lie" since he'd already declared he wouldn't support Pelosi as floor leader, much less a return to the speaker's rostrum. He's added his opposition to major new gun restrictions — though he backs expanded background checks — and declared himself personally opposed to abortion, despite his support for its legality.
Lamb has mostly avoided mentioning Trump, who remains generally popular in the district even if slightly diminished from his 2016 dominance.
He pairs those tacks with Democratic Party orthodoxy on the new GOP tax law, hammering it as a giveaway to corporations at the certain future expense of Social Security, Medicare and the nation's fiscal security. And he embraces unions, highlighting Saccone's anti-labor record at the statehouse — a noticeable deviation from Murphy's status as a union-friendly Republican. The AFL-CIO counts 87,000 votes from union households — around a fifth of the electorate.
Over the weekend, Lamb celebrated an endorsement from the United Mine Workers, a union that sat out the 2016 election rather than endorse Trump or Hillary Clinton.
The Democrat's efforts also have been effective enough to frustrate and even spook Republicans.
Dan Greene, a GOP committeeman in Westmoreland County, groused Monday about Lamb distinguishing himself from his party on guns and, less so, on abortion. "What has he done to prove that?" Greene questioned. "Rick Saccone has walked the walk."
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, at one point deviated from its Pelosi-bashing scripts to send Democratic voters mailers praising Lamb for opposing new gun restrictions. It was part of the fund's $3.5 million investment in the race, about a third of the total that outside GOP forces have injected.
Trump, begrudgingly admiring of Lamb's tactics, added his own warning Saturday. "The people of Pittsburgh," he declared, "cannot be conned by this guy Lamb."
Barrow reported from Carnegie.
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