ELIZABETH, Pa. – Donald Trump Jr. had a simple message for voters at a local volunteer fire department here the day before a special House election: His father may not be on the ballot Tuesday, but the stakes for President Trump couldn’t be higher.
“Just because DJT isn’t on this ticket, just because it’s a special election, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter,” Trump Jr. told the crowded hall, using the president’s initials. He later repeated himself for emphasis.
“Just because DJT isn’t on the ticket does not mean that everything he stands for and represents for the future isn’t on the ticket.”
The fire hall stop, the second event the younger Trump held with Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, came two days after the president himself rallied supporters just outside Pittsburgh. It was the final campaign push after months of heavy GOP investment in a race that, many Republicans concede, shouldn’t be competitive. Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District has been in the party’s hands since 2003. Mitt Romney won it by 17 percentage points in 2012; Trump won it by nearly 20. Yet the RCP average on the eve of the election showed Democrat Conor Lamb up by two points.
The all-out blitz, including the late appearances by the president and his son, raise the stakes for Trump personally, and are a reflection of just how concerned Republicans have become that they could lose here, which would be a devastating result for the party.
“The mood of the electorate is ornery,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who previously ran the party’s campaign committee. “This is a Trump district. This should be a lay-down and it’s not. It’s a warning to Republicans that they’re going to have a tough midterm and they have to batten down the hatches.”
The race, of course, remains a tossup. Saccone and Trump Jr. emphasized that to win Tuesday, they simply had to make sure the GOP’s base voters turn out in droves. For Lamb to win, he’ll likely require strong Democratic turnout and a mixture of apathy and some crossover votes from Republicans, a difficult coalition to build.
But there are clear signs that it is building. In a poll released by Monmouth University Monday, Lamb was ahead under every turnout model: He led by six points in a model predicting Democratic surge voting, as in previous special elections this cycle; by two points using traditional midterm election turnout; and by seven points using a model for high overall turnout.
Davis said a narrow loss would be concerning for Republicans, but a seven-point loss to Lamb would be a “real, real problem.”
Turnout is a major question mark in a race unlike any in history. Special elections are difficult to predict generally, but this one is taking place amid uncertainty about Pennsylvania’s congressional maps: The state Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional and redrew the maps for November, but the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing the case.
It’s not even certain whether the district will exist in November, but if the new maps are upheld, district lines will shift. Thus, no matter who wins Tuesday, the candidate wouldn’t live in the new district and would have to run in another district in November.
The race itself has also developed in a way that’s unlikely to be mirrored anywhere else in the country come November. Lamb raised four times as much money as Saccone, which gave the Democrat ample funds to spread a positive message about himself on TV. But Republican outside groups, hoping to prop up Saccone’s weak fundraising numbers, invested more than $10 million in the race, swamping Democratic investment.
Though dozens of Democratic candidates have outraised Republican incumbents in races across the country, they are unlikely to have the cash advantage Lamb did in this race. But on the flip side, Republican outside groups – specifically the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with Speaker Paul Ryan – won’t be singularly focused on any races in November, meaning the cavalry that came to Saccone’s aid won’t be there for other flagging GOP incumbents.
“This race should serve as a warning sign to all Republican incumbents,” said Corry Bliss, CLF’s executive director. “This is a very tough environment and if you don’t raise money, if you don’t run an aggressive, serious campaign, anyone could have a tough race in this environment.”
Lamb also set an early tone distancing himself from the national Democratic Party, saying in January that he wouldn’t back Nancy Pelosi as conference leader. Republicans nonetheless ceaselessly linked him to the liberal congresswoman. One radio ad running in the district funded by the GOP’s official campaign committee told voters to “tell Nancy Pelosi no” by voting for Saccone.
Republicans maintain the ads worked, and pointed to Lamb’s release of a TV ad doubling down on his opposition to Pelosi as leader. But Democrats believe that the ads have fallen flat. Lamb has focused his advertising and campaign message on his background as a Marine and former prosecutor, and on local issues.
One Democratic operative with experience in House races, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said there could be a flood of ads from Democrats opposing Pelosi if Lamb wins on Tuesday.
“If you’re running in a district not even as red as this one, you’re certainly going to poll and vet that out, and decide what you’re getting and what you’re losing,” the operative predicted.
“The DCCC has signaled there are no consequences for disavowing Pelosi,” the Democratic operative added.
Indeed, that quickly became clear: McClatchy reported Monday that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invested heavily in Tuesday’s special election behind the scenes. The DCCC declined to comment, but a source familiar with the investment said the DCCC spent more than $1 million in the race. One quarter of that went to TV ads; the committee also spent $170,000 in digital ads, more than $150,000 in field organization and get-out-the-vote efforts, and transferred nearly half a million dollars to the state Democratic Party, the source said.
Still, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the race, for both parties, is that candidates matter. Saccone had strong credentials: He’s a veteran with experience in foreign policy; has a PhD; and has been in the state legislature since 2010. Some of his local supporters were frustrated by criticism from national Republicans: One campaign volunteer at the fire hall event, who gave his first name as Mike but declined to share his full name, called the attacks “crap.”
But Saccone struggled to raise money, which made it difficult to finance TV ads to define himself or the race, which frustrated the national party.
Lamb, meanwhile, represented an ideal Democrat for this district. His background and telegenic appearance gave him instant appeal, and his effort to avoid association with the national party, to focus on local issues and to appeal to a broad swath of voters helped him energize reliable Democrats without wholly turning off conservatives.
Nancy Mills, the chairwoman of the Allegheny County Democrats, said Lamb’s appeal “crosses over wedge issues.” A day after Lamb campaigned in Greene County, which supported Trump by 40 percentage points, Mills told RCP that in Allegheny County, an area that backed Hillary Clinton by 17 points, she had never witnessed as many volunteers or as much enthusiasm as she’s seen for this election.
“He’s really a rock star-type candidate,” Mills said. “We knew that he was going to be an attractive candidate and extremely suited to the district, but we have even been surprised by how well he’s been received and how well he’s liked. I think what we’re seeing is something very, very unique.”