President Donald Trump is tiptoeing around the first congressional election of the new year as he heads to southwestern Pennsylvania on Thursday to hail the Republican tax cuts he signed last year.
Trump will appear with the Republican nominee for a Pittsburgh-area House seat. But the White House said Trump won't mention Rick Saccone in his remarks. And the event isn't actually in the 18th Congressional District, which holds the special election March 13.
Democrats, meanwhile, aren't necessarily any more confident in the chances that lawyer and former Marine Conor Lamb can flip the district to their side.
The handling of the race shows both sides' reluctance to put too much emphasis on one contest amid the high stakes of this midterm election year.
Saccone, a, 59-year-old state lawmaker, is trying to succeed Tim Murphy, who resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair. Lamb, 33, is looking for an upset in a union-heavy district Trump won by almost 20 points and where Murphy never got less than 58 percent of the vote in eight tries.
It's not surprising that Trump, looking for wins after the embarrassment of losing a Senate seat last month in conservative Alabama, might embrace a favored Republican in Trump-friendly territory.
"We're in Trump country here," Saccone said in an interview Wednesday, framing his candidacy as an extension of the agenda that propelled Trump. "It's only natural to have him come out to see his core constituency and have us celebrate his successes with him."
Yet the White House would confirm only that Saccone will greet the president at the airport and attend Trump's tour of a local factory.
Saccone, a retired Air Force officer with a doctorate in international affairs and experience in counterterrorism, said he didn't know whether he'd be seated with the president or even get to spend any time one-on-one with him. "I don't have any details," he said after spending the day in Washington raising money alongside GOP House leaders.
Jesse Hunt of the National Republican Congressional Committee said, "We're confident this seat will remain in Republican hands."
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan, has opened offices in the district with paid canvassers. Political groups bankrolled by the billionaire Ricketts family - owners of the Chicago Cubs - are airing television ads on Saccone's behalf. Those are not the moves of party titans completely sure of victory.
Democrats aren't exactly countering with exuberance. At the national party's House campaign headquarters, spokeswoman Meredith Kelly praised Lamb's "long record of public service to our country." But the party hasn't included the 18th District on its official list of GOP-held targets, which now includes 91 seats. Democrats must flip 24 GOP-held seats to regain a majority in the House.
In 2017, Democrats managed surprisingly competitive races in four special congressional races in heavily Republican districts, only to lose all four. The trends pointed to Democratic enthusiasm, but still didn't alter the partisan breakdown in Washington.
To flip that script, Lamb must "run a perfect campaign," said Mike Mikus, a Democratic campaign strategist who has run congressional races in the Pittsburgh area. "But it can be done," Mikus added.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by about 70,000, a reflection of organized labor's long influence in the district. But many of those union households embraced Trump's populist, protectionist message in 2016, and Mikus noted they're also culturally conservative.
Still, Lamb and Democrats believe they have an opening that wasn't available before, given that Murphy was among the few Washington Republicans who voted with labor unions and regularly got their endorsements.
This time, the state AFL-CIO has endorsed Lamb, and he is trying to strike the tone Mikus says is necessary for a Democrat to win.
Lamb's first television ad, set to air Thursday alongside the president's arrival, notes he has refused "corporate PAC money" and believes both parties "need new leaders in Congress." That's a reference to his promise to not to back House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker; the California Democrat remains unpopular in many congressional districts and the GOP regularly uses her as a cudgel on Democratic nominees.
The 30-second spot also tells voters that Lamb grew up in the district and says he "still loves to shoot."