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Politics & Government

Ahead Of Trump Visit, GOP Struggles With Campaign Basics

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Republican Rick Saccone (left) faces Democrat Conor Lamb in the March 13 special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District.

There is no sign of Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone on Sherwood Drive.

Just days before western Pennsylvania's special election, his campaign informed some residents that he may knock on doors that morning in this critical GOP stronghold. It's almost 11 a.m., and they're still waiting.

"He was supposed to stop by today," 68-year-old Republican John Debich says, scanning the empty streets of suburban Greensburg from his front porch. "It's the second time we've been avoided."

Debich's disappointment underscores a dangerous truth for the GOP as the nation braces for the next special election of the Trump era on Tuesday.

Saccone may be President Donald Trump's strong favorite in a conservative region, but he is struggling with the basics of modern-day politics. In a race that will hinge on voter turnout, the 60-year-old state lawmaker has little organization of his own — at least compared with Democrat Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor who has never before run for office.

Most of Saccone's appearances over the last week have been closed to the public, and those that weren't, attracted only a handful of supporters.

Drawing little energy from within, Saccone has been forced to outsource the lifeblood of many successful campaigns — the so-called get-out-the-vote operation — to paid contractors and the national GOP, which has scrambled to pick up the slack. Fearing another special election embarrassment, the White House is sending Trump to the region for the second time to help energize local Republicans on Saturday night.

"We're doing everything that we need to do to get out the vote and inspire people," Saccone told reporters this week, before he walked into a closed-door event with representatives from the local oil and gas industry. He added, "All the traditional things, we're doing."

Later that day, Lamb marched up and down the hilly streets of Carnegie, Pennsylvania, in the snow to encourage Democrats to vote. Some residents of the working-class Pittsburgh suburb were surprised to see the Democratic candidate at their doorstep.

Josh Jaros and his partner Kim Zouko, both 36, invited the fresh-faced Lamb into their living room, where he played with their 3-year-old daughter for a few minutes before asking them who they were voting for.

"You've got our vote. And if you didn't before, you do now," Jaros told him.

Lamb shuttled back to a nearby campaign office after knocking on 27 doors to speak to nearly 40 young volunteers, many of them in high school. They munched on macaroni and cheese and pulled pork as Lamb emphasized the importance of preserving Medicare and Social Security — programs that help people maintain "basic dignity," he said.

In a brief interview as volunteers buzzed through the two-story office, the first-time candidate insisted that winning elections isn't "rocket science."

"We've been working really hard to identify who our people are through door knocking and calls. That's what all these people are doing," Lamb said. "Election day is going to be like Dunkirk — everybody in their car is going to go out and make sure everybody gets there."

Some Washington Republicans concede that Lamb is the superior candidate in the race, which would have been an easy win for Republicans if not for Saccone's struggle to raise money and build an aggressive campaign.

The Republican posted only two public events on his Facebook page for the seven-day period before the election. He was not running any TV ads earlier in the week. His message, if voters hear it, is focused on his support for Trump, his experience in the public and private sector, his opposition to abortion rights, and efforts to link his opponent to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Saccone does enjoy a base of devoted supporters from the area he represented in the state house, but Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district includes 10 times more people.

And while Trump won the region by nearly 20 points little more than a year ago, polls now suggest that the Republican and Democrat are essentially tied. The seat has been in Republican hands for the last 15 years.

"Candidates and campaigns matter, and when one candidate outraises the other 6-to-1 and runs circles around the other, it creates real challenges for outside groups trying to win a race," said Corry Bliss, executive director for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, which has invested $3.5 million to boost Saccone's candidacy.

The organization has been active on the ground since early January to help execute an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation of its own. Over the last week, 50 full-time door knockers, hired through a private contractor, canvassed the district targeting Republican voters most likely to turn out on Tuesday.

They handed out fliers that cast Lamb, a moderate Democrat who has downplayed his connection to his party, as a "rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi."

At the same time, teams from the Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity arrived in the region this weekend to broaden the conservative outreach. And the Republican National Committee has spent more than $1 million on its own operation that was expected to reach 250,000 targeted voters — either by phone or in person — by election day, said RNC spokesman Rick Gorka.

Overall, national groups allied with the GOP have spent nearly $8 million on advertising in the race, a figure that doesn't include logistical support on the ground and is more than seven times the amount invested by national Democratic allies unaffiliated with the Lamb campaign.

The president and his party are eager to avoid another special election loss in what should be a safe Republican district.

Energized by their opposition to the president, Democrats have over-performed in virtually every contest across America since Trump took the White House. And the sting of the GOP's embarrassing December defeat in Alabama's special Senate race is still fresh.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway campaigned for Saccone on Thursday, the first of three high-profile visits from Trump or his senior team. In addition to Trump's Saturday appearance, Donald Trump Jr. is scheduled to rally local voters on Monday.

Conway's first appearance with Saccone at a Pittsburgh "meet and greet" with campaign volunteers attracted less than 20 people.

Back on Sherwood Drive, Debich is disappointed that Saccone didn't show, but he says it won't affect his vote. He notes that he stapled a Saccone campaign sign to his front lawn so the wind wouldn't blow it away.

"I'd like to meet him," Debich says. "I know he's a busy man. I'll see him at the Trump rally."