Trump hails GOP candidate in special Pa. election

TRAFFORD, Pa. (AP) -- President Donald Trump invoked "steel and business" Monday as he and his son made a final push to sway voters in a special election for a Pennsylvania House seat that will reverberate nationally.

Trump has already visited the district twice to try to buoy Republican Rick Saccone. On the last day before voting, Trump weighed in again as Saccone tried to fend off an unexpectedly strong challenge by Democrat Conor Lamb in a district Trump won easily in 2016.

"The Pittsburgh Post Gazette just endorsed Rick Saccone for Congress," Trump tweeted. "He will be much better for steel and business. Very strong on experience and what our Country needs. Lamb will always vote for Pelosi and Dems....Will raise taxes, weak on Crime and Border."

MORE: Trump lends White House weight to House race in Pa.

Later on Monday, Donald Trump Jr. was expected to stump for Saccone at two separate events, becoming the latest in a line of national pro-Trump figures to appear with Saccone in the district.

The 60-year-old state lawmaker has struggled with an electorate that favored Trump by 20 percentage points just 16 months ago. He needs the residents of Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District to nationalize their choice and make him a proxy for what they already think about Washington, the president and the issues that define their party affiliation.

The outcome Tuesday of 2018's first congressional election is being closely watched as a key test of support for Republicans ahead of November's midterms. Democrats must flip 24 GOP-held seats to claim a House majority, and an upset will embolden them as they look to win in places where the party has lost ground in recent decades.

Republicans, meanwhile, would be spooked about their prospects in this tempestuous era of Trump, who most recently visited Saturday night on Saccone's behalf.

The 33-year-old Lamb, a Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, has crystallized the debate over whether a younger, charismatic Democrat appealing to win back traditionally Democratic voters can overcome Republican party loyalty in a GOP-leaning district at a time when Trump remains a divisive figure.

Barbara DeFelice, a 64-year-old retiree, said she decided months ago to back Republican Rick Saccone for one reason: opposition to abortion rights.

"He shares my values," DeFelice said Sunday. "I just don't understand that people say we shouldn't put lobsters into hot, boiling water ... but we can kill babies."

Nearby in DeFelice's upper-middle-class enclave outside Pittsburgh, engineer Carol Heinecke, 57, offered another absolute reason for supporting Saccone: President Donald Trump. "Rick's going to support everything he's doing," she said.

Such attitudes will be the difference should Saccone emerge victorious.

Saccone has tried at times to make the race about experience, touting his four decades in the public and private sector, from an Air Force career and stint in North Korea to his current job as a college professor. He sometimes mocks Lamb as having "no record at all."

But that, by itself, hasn't given Saccone much traction against Lamb, who hails from an established Allegheny County political family and pitches himself as independent-minded. To back that up, Lamb opposes sweeping gun restrictions, endorses Trump's new steel tariffs, avoids attacking the president, and tells voters he wouldn't back Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California for speaker if Democrats won a House majority.

Asked why Lamb could win the district when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton couldn't, Bill Kortz, a former steel worker and a Democratic state lawmaker from Allegheny County, said it came down to Lamb's opposition to more gun control. "He's a Marine," Kortz said. "He's good with guns. He's good with the Second Amendment."

Lamb, however, keeps to party orthodoxy on unions in a district with a long history of coal mining and steel-making.

He blasts the new Republican tax law as a gift to the wealthy and a threat to Social Security and Medicare. "People have paid into these programs over the course of a lifetime," Lamb told more than 300 retired coal miners and Democratic activists Sunday in Waynesburg, 40 miles south of Pittsburgh. "I do not believe, as (Republican House Speaker) Paul Ryan does, that these are entitlements or another form of welfare."

At the Lamb rally, Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mineworkers of America, delivered a rousing endorsement of Lamb, a noteworthy endorsement since the union sat out the 2016 election rather than back Clinton in 2016.

Boasting a more than 3-to-1 fundraising advantage over Saccone, Lamb has plastered his message on Pittsburgh television and animated Democrats who haven't had recent reason to care.

The party didn't even run opponents against the previous congressman, Republican Tim Murphy, in 2014 and 2016. Murphy resigned in October amid a sex scandal.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's conservative editorial board this weekend complimented Lamb as "an impressive young man," but warned that he could become part of a Democratic majority that would try to impeach Trump. Neither Lamb nor Saccone has made the ongoing Russia investigation bedeviling Trump part of his pitch, but the paper insisted the country must not "dive into so great a distraction."

The Republican argument is enough for voters like 54-year-old Jeffrey Snelling. "I don't know much about Rick Saccone," he acknowledged, adding that he remains skeptical about Trump. His bottom line, though: "I'm not voting for any liberal who's going to advance the Democratic Party agenda."