Republican Congressman Keith Rothfus, running for reelection in one of the most closely watched House races in the country, got a boost from Vice President Mike Pence Saturday afternoon.
"I was for Keith Rothfus before it was cool," Pence joked before a crowd of about 100 people in a Moon Township hotel ballroom.
The visit followed a pair of presidential tweets earlier Saturday in which Donald Trump referred to Pence's opponent, Democrat Conor Lamb, as "Lamb the sham" and said — obscurely — that Lamb has been "telling everyone how much he likes me," while voting against him. Rothfus, Trump tweeted, was "one of the finest men around."
Trump used the same insult during a special election held just over three months ago, and made a similar claim about Lamb's purported kind words for him earlier this year. The statement was factually challenged then -- Lamb largely eschewed discussing the president during that campaign, even while criticizing Republican priorities -- and little has changed since then.
Pence, too, followed a script much like the one he used during his last trip to the area, a February appearance in support of state Rep. Rick Saccone, the Republican Lamb beat in March. As he did during that earlier visit, Pence linked Lamb to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and called out Lamb’s opposition to a Republican tax cut plan passed late last year.
"We all remember that special election that happened just a few months ago," Pence said. "Remember? I mean, we didn’t know much about now-Congressman Conor Lamb, did we? ... The only thing he said for sure, was that if Conor Lamb had been a Congressman then, he would have voted against those tax cuts."
Thanks to those cuts, Pence asserted, "This economy is rolling back. Steel City is coming back. Pennsylvania is coming back, the American economy is rolling.” (He cited a decision by U.S. Steel to restart a blast furnace, although that furnace is located in Illinois. )
Pence faulted Lamb for a number of votes he’s made since being elected, most notably a "right to try" bill. The legislation enhances access to unproven treatments for patients with life-threatening illnesses. The measure is controversial, with some concerned it could put more people at risk of taking dangerous medication, and others portraying it as a last-ditch effort to help those in need.
Lamb “voted with Washington D.C. and not for vulnerable families … when he voted against that bill," Pence said.
The Lamb campaign responded to the event in a statement:
"While Keith Rothfus was performing on stage today courting his special interest donors, Conor Lamb was out this morning working with veterans on housing assistance programs, and this afternoon visiting with constituents and local businesses affected by last week's floods."
Pence's visit, and Trump's tweets, reflect the importance of the race in the 17th Congressional District, which consists of Beaver County and a broad swath of suburbs in Allegheny County.
Democratic hopes for capturing control of the House would be bolstered by a win here. The race, which pundits rate as a toss-up, is the only contest in which two incumbents face each other. That's the result of a court-ordered statewide redistricting that took place earlier this year. Lamb beat Saccone to represent the former 18th district, only to have his Mt. Lebanon homebase be drawn into a district that overlays much of Rothfus' current 12th.
Rothfus called attention to the race's stakes while introducing Pence. "If Republicans don’t hold the House, our friend Maxine ‘Impeach 45’ Waters is going to chair the Financial Services Committee," Rothfus said, as the crowd jeered the California Democrat's name. "We don’t want that to happen."
Rothfus later told reporters that the comparatively modest crowd was made up of campaign contributors — some of whom had paid for photographs with the vice president prior to his appearance — and friends, rather than a rally.
He also noted that he had bucked Trump on some votes, particularly on spending bills that ran against his own fiscal conservatism. But he largely endorsed the president’s job performance, even on controversial matters such as the White House's separation of immigrant children from their families at the border.
That policy, which has stripped over 2,000 children from their parents and sent them to Pittsburgh and other cities, generated a firestorm. Trump reversed the policy on Wednesday with an executive order, but the fate of children already separated remains unclear.
"I think the president has heard the criticisms and the president has acted," Rothfus said. Asked whether it would have been better for Trump to anticipate those problems in advance, he said, “We have a problem down on the southern border."