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Trump Visit Reflects High Stakes In Special Election To Replace Murphy

President Donald Trump is expected to appear with state Rep. Rick Saccone (R - Elizabeth) in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District Thurs., Jan. 18, 2018.

National attention is increasingly turning to the special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, and the contest is poised to become the center of the political world Thursday, when President Donald Trump is expected to appear in North Fayette, in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, with Republican candidate Rick Saccone.


A five-term representative in the Pennsylvania House, Saccone will compete against Democrat and former federal prosecutor, Conor Lamb, in the March 13 special election. The election was prompted in October, when Murphy resigned amid allegations that he had asked a woman with whom he’d been having an affair to get an abortion.


The president’s visit is just one of a series of moves by national Republican groups to rally support for Saccone and reflects the importance of the race.


“It’s one of those races that has enormous implications nationally, in the sense that there’s a feeling of a possible Democratic wave building in 2018,” said Christopher Borick, who directs the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.


“If a seat like this, where the president won by 20 points in 2016 was to somehow flip to the Democrats,” Borick continued, “it would send repercussions all throughout the political world and really put the Republican Party into panic mode."


Further reflecting the significance of the special election, Vice President Mike Pence reportedly plans to make his own visit later this month, and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, announced in early January that it would open two offices in the district. The fund seeks to reach 250,000 voters with the help of 50 paid door-knockers.


The news site Politico reported last week that the Republican National Committee “has two field staffers on the ground and has begun executing a get-out-the-vote plan that was approved by the White House.”


Earlier this month, the Republican super PAC Ending Spending announced a $1 million ad buy. Its first spot has already hit local airwaves.


The 45Committee, a pro-Trump outside group, also plans to spend $500,000 on advertising, according to Politico. The super PAC came out with the first negative ad of the campaign last week.


While the GOP may view Trump's visit Thursday as another tool for motivating voters to turn out for Saccone on March 13, Borick called it “a gamble." He noted that Trump’s approval ratings remain at historic lows at this point in his presidency and that momentum could be building within the Democratic Party.


Lamb hopes to capitalize on such energy and said the president’s visit will not affect the candidate's approach, with its emphasis on direct voter contact.


“I’ve been doing a lot of door-knocking personally, especially in Republican and Independent households,” Lamb said. “Every single one of them has an open mind, and they’re willing to listen to what I have to say.”


Lamb said he’s also encouraged by larger-than-expected turnout at his campaign events.


Unlike their GOP counterparts, national Democratic groups haven't announced plans to invest in the race, though Lamb could get a boost from mega-donor Tom Steyer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week.


Saccone’s campaign did not reply to requests for comment.

UPDATED: Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, at 12:50 p.m. to reflect that Trump's stop would include North Fayette, not Coraopolis, which was the venue's mailing address.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.