State Rep. Rick Saccone (R - Elizabeth) sits at his campaign headquarters in Southpointe with one other staffer.
It’s a marked contrast from a little more than a month ago, when dozens of campaign workers were bustling around the office in a final push to win a special congressional election that pitted Saccone against U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D - Mt. Lebanon) and attracted national attention.
Saccone narrowly lost the race March 13, and he’s again a candidate in a newly-drawn 14th Congressional District, which covers all of Fayette, Greene and Washington counties as well as the western portion of Westmoreland County.
Saccone said he’s relieved to be free from the national media and outside spending that he said distorted his message in the special election.
“Remember, those outside groups spent that money, not on me – they spent it on their own message, mostly anti-Nancy Pelosi message,” Saccone said. “It wasn’t on Rick Saccone; it wasn’t helping Rick Saccone, to tell Rick Saccone’s story.”
Saccone’s loss, in a district that had been trending Republican for years, was a big upset for the GOP and may well haunt him in the May 15 primary. His primary opponent, state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler (R - Jefferson Hills), said last month’s election was such a “debacle” that many in his party urged him to run against Saccone.
“We were all there to support Rick Saccone. The president was in the district twice. His children came on several occasions. The vice president came,” Reschenthaler recalled. “So, I think that the voters deserve another choice, and it’s time to put a new candidate forward who has a history of winning, like myself.”
Once a prosecutor in the Navy and then a magisterial district judge, Reschenthaler also sought the GOP nomination in the special election. But at a meeting of local party officials last fall, he lost to Saccone, an Air Force veteran who taught at St. Vincent College before joining the state House in 2010.
Reschenthaler. 34, is casting himself as the future of the GOP and a stronger standard-bearer than Saccone, 60. The state senator has already raised enough money to run TV ads, and his donors include Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and the previous chair of the state Republican Party.
“I think Republican voters want somebody who’s new,” Reschenthaler said.
In terms of policy, however, little separates the two candidates, said Republican strategist Charlie Gerow.
“That’s what so interesting about this race,” Gerow added. “The issue differences and distinctions really aren’t that great. You’ve got two conservative Republicans. So it becomes much more about a personality-driven race.”
And so far, the race has featured some sharp exchanges.
Reschenthaler’s campaign has raised doubts about Saccone’s work on a power plant in North Korea from 2000 to 2001. The project was meant to encourage the country to drop its nuclear weapons program, and Saccone has said he served as a diplomat. Last month, however, The Guardian newspaper suggested he overstated his role.
Saccone counters that his interactions with everyday North Koreans built up potentially important goodwill with the country.
Meanwhile, the lawmaker has begun to call Reschenthaler a career politician.
“He’s jumped and hopped from one job to another, never finishing a term in any one position that he’s been in,” Saccone said.
Before joining the state Senate in 2015, Reschenthaler completed about one-third of his term as district judge, and now he’s running for Congress before finishing his first full term in the legislature.
Despite his bruising defeat last month, Saccone is encouraged by the newly-formed district. The 14th keeps all of the counties Saccone won in the special election, where voters skew conservative on issues like abortion and gun rights.
Kim Stolfer, a prominent local Second Amendment activist, said enthusiasm has not cooled for Saccone, despite grousing about his prior campaign by national Republicans.
“If anything, it’s brought a sense of saltiness because of some in the national media who have criticized him,” Stolfer said.
While there might be some conflict within the GOP today, party strategist Gerow says the 14th is a district where either Republican is likely to claim victory in November.