Democrat Conor Lamb (Mt. Lebanon Township) and Republican Rick Saccone (Elizabeth Township) doubled down on their respective messages, and launched sharp criticism at one another, ahead of the March 13 special election to fill the empty House seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th District.
A debate broadcast live on WTAE-TV included several contentious exchanges, as state Rep. Saccone and ex-federal prosecutor Lamb wrestled with issues ranging from tariffs to gun control to healthcare. During the hour-long program, Saccone generally called for a smaller role for government while Lamb tended to favor more federal action.
But in regard to President Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, both candidates voiced qualified support. They said the tariffs could level an unfair playing field when it comes to international trade.
It’s too early to say exactly what form the policy will take, both candidates suggested, but Lamb recommended limiting the tariffs to “bad actors” such as China so that U.S. allies could be spared from a potential hit to export sales.
“For too long, China has been making cheap steel, and they’ve been flooding the market with it.” Lamb said. “I actually think this [tariff plan] is long overdue.”
Lamb went on to criticize Saccone for supporting bills, as a member of the state House, that allow the use of foreign steel rather than domestic steel produced by unionized workers in public construction projects.
Saccone responded by saying that Pennsylvania workers have been hurt by Democratic policies, which according to Saccone, have led to over-regulation and higher taxes and, in turn, driven jobs to other states.
“I’ve stood up for the union workers, and that’s why they vote for me in droves,” Saccone said.
On the issue of gun control, both candidates again said they oppose banning AR-15 rifles and bumpstocks, a device that enables semi-automatic rifles to fire faster. They also said they don’t support raising the age limit to purchase rifles to 21, though unlike Saccone, Lamb said he could eventually be open to the idea.
Saccone and Lamb contrasted more starkly when it came to health care.
To make health care more affordable, Saccone said he favors exploring options for buying health insurance across state lines, reforming the health savings account system, and encouraging private ventures such as MedExpress urgent care clinics.
Lamb countered that the market-based approaches championed by Saccone are unlikely to produce results. Rather, Lamb said, the Affordable Care Act should be strengthened and a method for reducing risk to individual insurers, called reinsurance, should be explored.
In a notable departure from policy, Lamb denounced as “garbage" negative TV ads that attack him as a weak prosecutor.
The ads, funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee, criticize Lamb for negotiating guilty pleas in exchange for sentences less than the maximum possible punishment. Such plea deals are highly common in federal criminal cases and still result in conviction.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, has also run an animated ad that plays on Lamb's last name to link him to the polarizing House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Although the candidate has said Pelosi should step aside as leader, the ad insists, "In Washington, he'd be one of Nancy Pelosi's sheep ... voting the straight liberal party line for Pelosi's extreme agenda."
“They’ve lied about my record,” Lamb said of the Republican groups. “They’ve run cartoon ads - it’s like a comic book version of a campaign. And people are laughing at you, Rick."
“This is the nonsense and deception that my opponent’s campaign is all about,” Saccone shot back, before noting that none of his campaign’s three TV ads have been negative. The Republican lawmaker, however, defended one of the NRCC spots arguing that Lamb was soft on crime as a prosecutor.
Saccone pushed back against an ad by the Lamb campaign, which attacks him for using his legislative expense account to pay for meals, per diem payments, and other items at a higher rate than most of his colleagues in Harrisburg.
According to Saccone, he stays under budget when it comes to running his legislative office. He said he has consistently returned the remaining funds to the state. The Republican also pointed out that he doesn't draw from the state pension or use a state-issued car.
Lamb and Saccone plan to run for a full term following this month’s special election, even though a new congressional map issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court knocks both candidates into new districts for the May 15 primary. The court declared the previous map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander in January.
In Saturday's debate, Saccone criticized the new lines as an instance of judicial overreach.
Saccone indicated last month that, if the court's plan holds up against a legal challenge by GOP lawmakers, he’d be inclined to run in a newly drawn 14th District, which would replace what has been the 18th. The Republican would not reside in the 14th, but the U.S. Constitution does not require House members to live in the district they represent.
Lamb, who would be in the 17th District under the new map, hasn’t said where he’ll seek a full term.
“I don’t really care where they draw the lines coming up – we’ll let that shake out in the courts,” Lamb said at Saturday's debate.