Republicans trash their candidate in Pa. special election

 In Politics

Shortly after the new year, Rep. Steve Stivers, the House GOP campaign chief, delivered a stern message to Rick Saccone, the party’s special election candidate in Pennsylvania.

You need to start pulling your weight, Stivers implored Saccone, the mustachioed 60-year-old state legislator who is carrying the weight of the Republican Party in a crucial contest next week.

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Stivers’ warning, described by two people familiar with the discussion, was intended to put the candidate on notice. The national GOP would be helping him out substantially, Stivers said. But if Saccone didn’t start upping his fundraising game and getting his sluggish campaign in order, he could lose a race that should be a gimme for the party.

Saccone said he understood. But in the weeks to come, the National Republican Congressional Committee quietly dispatched a staffer to the district to walk Saccone, who lacked any donor infrastructure, through the basics of how to fundraise. Stivers had several more conversations with the candidate to try to prod him along.

Tuesday’s special election, which is being held in a district President Donald Trump won by 20 percentage points, has emerged as the latest testing ground of whether Republicans are headed for a midterm bloodbath. A loss would be wholly embarrassing, many Republicans privately acknowledge, given that it would take place in a state that Trump made a cornerstone of his 2016 victory. And the themes that the GOP has highlighted in the special election — namely tax cuts and opposition to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — are the centerpieces of the party’s 2018 campaign plan.

But as election day grows closer, the national GOP is increasingly pinning the blame on Saccone. In interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, senior House Republicans and top party strategists, Saccone was nearly universally panned as a deeply underwhelming candidate who leaned excessively on the national party to execute a massive, multimillion-dollar rescue effort. It was complete with visits from the president, vice president and several Cabinet members.

They describe a candidate who largely ignored pleas to raise the money he needed, who blindsided the White House and the national party with his choice of a political strategist, and whose amateur-style social media feed included low-quality videos of him at a local bar and yukking it up with Santa. To make matters worse, Saccone is up against a Democratic rival the party could hardly have engineered had it tried: Conor Lamb, an Ivy League-educated 33-year-old Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor.

Lamb has used a nearly $4 million war chest to cast himself as independent of his party, airing slickly produced TV ads underscoring his aversion to Pelosi and his fondness for shooting machine guns. He has a campaign staff of 16 full-time employees, compared with just four for Saccone.

“Candidate quality matters, and when one candidate outraises the other 5-to-1, that creates real challenges for outside groups trying to win a race,” said Corry Bliss, who oversees the principal House GOP-aligned super PAC, which has conducted an expansive TV and field deployment effort aimed at pushing Saccone over the top.

The Saccone campaign declined to comment.

Many Republicans expect that Saccone will ultimately prevail, thanks largely to the conservative nature of the southwestern Pennsylvania district and the national GOP’s effort. Yet three senior party strategists said they’d reviewed internal polling data in recent days pointing to a narrow Lamb lead, raising alarms. And this week, the Republican National Committee conducted a data analysis finding that just 47 percent of voters in the district viewed Saccone favorably, 3 percentage points lower than Trump.

The concerns go all the way to the White House. Trump appeared with Saccone at an event in January, and in the weeks that followed he described the candidate as less than ideal, according to three people who’ve spoken with him. In February, Trump planned to attend a fundraiser with Saccone, but in the days leading up to the event, the president’s aides privately grew fearful that Saccone wouldn’t be able to draw a sufficient number of donors to the event. (The fundraiser was ultimately canceled because of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.)

Trump’s advisers, several of whom have been dispatched to the district, have been miffed, too. During one recent White House meeting, Saccone was critiqued by several administration officials. At one point, first daughter Ivanka Trump, who appeared with Saccone at a small business roundtable near Pittsburgh in February, was asked for her thoughts.

Trump told colleagues she’d been impressed by the candidate, who she described as kind and intelligent. But she noted that Saccone seemed to lack the charisma of many politicians.

On Monday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was taken aback when NBC reported that Saccone had said last year that the government was limited in what it could do to stem the opioid epidemic, which has hit southwestern Pennsylvania hard. Conway, who is Trump’s point person on opioids and is slated to appear with Saccone on Thursday, responded to the story by telling colleagues that Saccone and other 2018 candidates should be highlighting the administration’s efforts to combat the crisis.

With Trump set to campaign with Saccone on Saturday evening, some White House officials have questioned whether the president should scrap the trip, fearful that a Saccone loss would be seen as even more of a rebuke to the president. But Trump has told aides in recent days he’s going anyway, convinced that he’ll likely be blamed for a defeat regardless.

Capitol Hill Republicans had hoped for another nominee. But late last year, when Pennsylvania Republicans selected their candidate to run in the race, the two prospects favored by House GOP leaders — state Sens. Guy Reschenthaler and Kim Ward — lost to Saccone.

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