Trump races to head off another special election debacle
The White House is scrambling to avoid another special election disaster, this time in a Pennsylvania congressional district in the heart of Trump country.
After a humiliating loss in the Alabama Senate race last month, the administration is drawing up ambitious plans that will kick off next Thursday when Trump travels to the conservative district to appear with Republican candidate Rick Saccone. Vice President Mike Pence and an assortment of Cabinet officials are also expected to make trips; Pence may go twice ahead of the March 13 special election, two administration officials said.
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The White House has taken an especially keen interest in the race: Members of Trump’s political affairs office met with Saccone this week. And during a Tuesday conference call between the Republican national party committees and the Saccone campaign, White House political director Bill Stepien expressed displeasure with the progress the candidate was making on fundraising. Stepien said Saccone wasn’t raising enough money and asked for an update on the campaign’s progress in the days to come.
Trump’s visit to the district next week will take him to a manufacturing plant outside Pittsburgh. The president plans to use the ostensibly official trip to promote the recently passed tax reform plan.
It is unusual for a White House to expend so much political capital on a single House race, particularly in what’s typically seen as a safe Republican district. But the involvement underscores the high stakes confronting the administration as it approaches a midterm election in which the party’s hold on the House majority is in grave danger. A loss in the working class Pennsylvania district, which the president won by 20 percentage points, would show that few GOP seats are safe.
Republicans have reason to worry. Aside from his anemic fundraising, Saccone, a Trump-aligned state representative, is facing a telegenic opponent in Democrat Conor Lamb, an Ivy League-educated 33-year-old attorney and Marine Corps veteran. The special election was triggered in October, when former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy resigned amid allegations that he asked a woman he was having an affair with to get an abortion.
The contest was discussed at a private weekend sit-down between Trump and congressional leaders at Camp David last weekend. During the meeting, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a sobering presentation on the election landscape in which he underscored the historic tendency for the party in power to lose seats in a president’s first midterm. McCarthy, according to two people familiar with the discussion, made a broad ask for assistance from the White House and warned that a loss of the House majority could have profound consequences for Trump’s administration.
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who is retiring, pointed out that his party has underperformed in a series of special elections since the president took office.
“I hope that doesn’t happen in southwestern Pennsylvania because that’s a Trump district and the outcome there could have repercussions for the midterms more broadly,” Dent said in an interview. “It should go Republican, but in this environment one can never take anything for granted.”
The outcome could also have consequences for the White House political office, which is attempting to corral the Republican Party machinery ahead of a brutal midterm season. This week, the White House, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, began holding what is expected to be a regularly scheduled conference call to coordinate their activities on the race.
Behind the scenes, the party is taking additional steps to prepare. The RNC has two field staffers on the ground and has begun executing a get-out-the-vote plan that was approved by the White House. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the principal pro-House GOP super PAC, opened an office in the district and has dispatched 50 door-knockers there. The conservative outside group Ending Spending has announced plans to invest $1 million on TV ads, and 45Committee, a pro-Trump outside group, is set to launch a $500,000 media campaign.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, is still deliberating how much it will spend. The committee has met with Saccone on several occasions, including this week.