Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, whose population peaked about the time native son Perry Como left in the 1930s, is Trump country. A special congressional election there in six weeks makes it a pretty good place to test whether President Donald Trump’s standing is eroding or not.
The area’s Republican Congressman Tim Murphy represented the southwestern Pennsylvania district for 14 years until he resigned in scandal last October. Mostly rural, with small towns and a slice of Pittsburgh suburbs, it should be a slam dunk for Republicans. Trump carried it by 19 percentage points and Murphy ran unopposed in the last two elections. But Democrats, sensing a national blue wave, think they have a shot.
There are interesting crosscurrents.
The Democratic candidate, 33-year-old Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran with family roots in the area, is youthful and polished on the stump. The Republican, state Representative Rick Saccone, a 59-year-old ex-Air Force officer with a doctorate in international affairs, counters with legislative experience and proven success with voters.
There’s enthusiasm for the attractive young Democrat, while Republicans have an embedded political infrastructure. Both sides agree that Trump would carry the district in an election held today, and also that his support has slipped since November.
They also agree that local voters hate Washington, which can sometimes make the race sound as though it’s a contest between House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The federal tax overhaul enacted in December will be a focus of debate in the final month before the March 13 balloting. Saccone, who says he’s going to Washington to help Trump, is a big booster. Lamb, who says he says he’s going to Washington to bring change and work across the aisle, argues that the tax cut won’t help working-class Pennsylvanians and that it presages cuts in Medicare and Social Security. There are a lot of seniors in the district.
Looming over the contest is last week’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that the state’s congressional districts are illegally gerrymandered to favor Republicans and must be redrawn. This won’t affect the March contest, but could force a November rerun with different district lines.
National Republicans fear the shock waves that will strike if they lose a district that wasn’t even on the radar screen four months ago, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Murphy, a self-proclaimed family-values conservative, had urged his lover to have an abortion. He soon resigned.
GOP manpower and money are pouring in to attack Lamb, portraying him as a left-wing Pelosi lackey. Fake photographs are circulating, purporting to show them together. (Lamb has said he would not support her for party leader, saying he’d favor a new leadership generation personified by Representatives Tim Ryan of neighboring Ohio and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts.) Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have said they’d visit to stump for Saccone. They know it’s a race they can ill afford to lose.
Saccone, whose campaign website says he spent a year “on a diplomatic mission” in North Korea, is one of the state legislature’s most conservative members, once backing a bill requiring public school buildings to post signs declaring “In God We Trust.” The district is culturally conservative, but its voters also include more than 80,000 union households and labor is energized for Lamb.
In Canonsburg, Trump signs and bumper stickers are still common sights. At the Perry Como museum inside a McDonald’s restaurant last week, Donna McDonald, who voted Republican in 2016, is undecided now and disappointed in Trump. “He’s a double talker,” she said. A couple of other residents who opened their doors to talk politics fretted about the president’s tweets.
Lamb focuses his fire on congressional Republicans, but doesn’t lay off Trump.
“I’ll work with Trump on infrastructure and drugs, but not the sort of tax bill that gives crumbs to the middle class and does nothing to protect jobs from going overseas,” he said in an interview.
While Saccone cites his political experience, Lamb, relishing the contrast, says he is part of a new outsider breed. Some liberals in the suburban part of the district complain that he is too centrist, pro-gun and Trump-tolerant. But even Republican strategists acknowledge that anti-Trump passions will drive those voters to Lamb.
Helped by his family’s political roots, Lamb is out-fundraising his opponent. National Democratic groups are starting to invest, but so far have delivered only a fraction of the outside Republican contributions. That may not be enough, said Professor Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College, a leading expert on Pennsylvania politics.
“This race may be winnable for Democrats,” Madonna said, “but they don’t have much time.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.