12 Mar 2018 - 8:37
Congressional race on Trump turf is national barometer
Mount Lebanon, United States: In a Pennsylvania district Donald Trump swept in 2016, the unfathomable has become possible: a Democrat could win Tuesday's special election, sparking fears among Republicans about their ability to keep control of Congress with hugely consequential races in November.
With anti-Trump fervor simmering, voters troop to the polls in the closely watched 18th congressional district, the working-class corner of southwestern Pennsylvania, to replace a Republican ousted by scandal.
It is coal country, and steel country too. Its recent reliably red status had diminished the drama about local elections.
Suddenly it's under a political microscope, with the battle between culturally conservative Trump-backed state representative Rick Saccone, 60, and Democratic newcomer Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former prosecutor and US Marine lawyer, taking on national implications.
"If the Democrats are able to come close, or win this, it will send shock waves across the political world," Kevan Yenerall, a political science professor at Clarion University, said in an interview in the town of Mount Lebanon.
"It'll mean the Democrats will likely pick up in fundraising and recruitment, and give them momentum going into the mid-term elections."
Republicans control both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Analysts say that if White House chaos continues and Democratic field action surges, Democrats have a chance of flipping both chambers in November.
Such is the potential significance of the latest race that the president himself stumped on Saturday for Saccone in District 18, which Trump won by 22 percent in 2016.
'Vote like crazy'
"He has a tough race," Trump acknowledged to thousands at a raucous rally in Moon Township.
"The whole world, remember that, they're all watching," he said.
"Go out on Tuesday and just vote like crazy."
A president's endorsement and powers of persuasion can be valuable assets for a congressional candidate.
But Lamb's surprisingly strong performance -- polls show him tied or within the margin of error against Saccone -- has boiled down to Trump's polarizing presidency, according to Democratic Congressman Michael Doyle.
"Lo and behold, they're fighting for their lives here," Doyle told AFP, referring to Republicans.
"I think what's happening is, there's some buyer's remorse going on."
Trump's fiery populism, which included pledges to curb immigration, re-open shuttered factories, and strengthen the military, helped win the White House.
But after a contentious -- even toxic -- first year, the Trump political brand is being tested.
"Make no mistake: This race is a referendum on Trump's presidency," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national group that works to elect Democrats to the House, said Sunday.
Republicans have pumped millions of outside dollars into the race, overwhelming the Democrats by seven to one, Yenerall said.
But Lamb's local campaign has pulled in more money than Saccone's, and is riding a tide of grassroots enthusiasm that has brought Lamb within striking distance of his more experienced opponent.
His army of volunteers has fanned out knocking on doors, pressing into areas once considered so conservative that a Democrat could have little hope of breaking through.
But Lamb has resonated with voters, including some centrist Republicans.
The new face of a blue-collar family with political roots, Lamb is socially conservative and economically moderate, and backs the tariffs that Trump announced he is slapping on steel and aluminum imports.
At a recent rally at the United Steelworkers union, which has endorsed Lamb, he was restrained and soft-spoken.
"In a time when they are trying to divide us, when our country is so divided already, we are united in this district for the first time in a long time," Lamb told the steelworkers.
Saccone sounded more fervent as he stood alongside Trump at their rally.
"This is the time to close the deal," Saccone implored to supporters. "We've got two days left."
Colleen Wooten, a Steelworkers staff representative, said Lamb has connected with the region's working class.
"We're not out trying to get rich. We're just trying to have the American dream, and I think Mr. Lamb understands that and is going to bring our message forward," she said.
"And if we can win big in our state, we can start a snowball effect."
Democrats could be forgiven for fretting about Tuesday's outcome.
Their candidates made strong showings last year in special congressional elections in Georgia, Kansas and Montana, but ultimately fell short in those Republican strongholds.
Democrats nonetheless take heart that those candidates performed better in their districts than Hillary Clinton did against Trump in 2016.
And several successes in state legislature races across the country, notably Virginia, have hinted at the potential for a blue wave.
Some local Republicans suggested Democratic exuberance might be misplaced once again.
Armand Castelli, a 58-year-old insurance agent from Pittsburgh, gave Democrat Lamb credit for having "a fairly decent resume," but suggested it would not be enough to upset Saccone, or to trigger a national political shift.
"Let's see what happens on Tuesday," Castelli said.