CORAOPOLIS, PA — Braving single-digit temperatures, hundreds of invited guests waited in buses at a suburban Pittsburgh shopping center to see President Trump speak at H&K Equipment, a heavy equipment dealer in suburban Pittsburgh.
While billed as an official event to discuss the benefits of the recently-passed tax reform bill on Western Pennsylvania's local businesses, it was clear before the president had even left Washington that he had a special election on his mind.
"Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13)," Trump tweeted Thursday morning, backing the GOP candidate in the race. "Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!"
Trump arrived with several members of the GOP House delegation from Pennsylvania as part of his entourage, including Reps. Mike Kelly of Butler, G.T. Thompson of Howard Township, Pat Meehan of suburban Philadelphia, and Keith Rothfus from Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs.
And of course, Rick Saccone, a current member of the state House of Representatives and the GOP candidate for the special election, also came. When he arrived at the equipment company with the delegation, he walked out into the crowd, hugged his son, and shook hands with members of the audience.
Trump was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd, telling them: “It hasn’t even been a month since I signed the bill; it’s turned out to be much bigger than we all thought,” he said. Then, he listed a number of investments made by companies, including Apple, which just announced its plans to invest over $300 billion across the country.
The equipment company he was standing in was another example.
“I appreciate that, and the workers appreciate that,” he said, before singling out Comcast employee Kevin Hodits, a Marine Corps veteran, and mentioning his $1,000 bonus check, which Hodits planned to use to visit his grandparents.
“See you in Florida,” Trump quipped with a smile, "and congratulations for your bonus."
Pennsylvania’s 18th District is a predominantly white mix of suburban, upper-middle-class Pittsburgh-area residents, where 42 percent of the vote is located. The remaining 58 percent is an exurban mix of middle-class, blue-collar, and rural whites.
The district went for Trump overwhelmingly in 2018, earning nearly 20 percentage points over Hillary Clinton. Despite a 25,000 person registration advantage, Democrats have failed to be competitive here since 2000, and they even failed to field a candidate to run against former Rep. Tim Murphy.
Murphy had resigned his seat in disgrace in October after the popular pro-life Republican was caught in an affair with a young woman, allegedly suggesting her to consider an abortion during a pregnancy scare.
The special election on March 13 is the first congressional special election in 2018 and also the first election after the president’s ill-advised foray into Alabama's special election for the U.S. Senate late last year, where the GOP candidate, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct earlier in his career.
Saccone, an Air Force veteran with a Ph.D. in international affairs who has lived and worked in North Korea, is the Republican candidate for the seat.
Saccone first ran and won a hard-fought state House seat against Democratic incumbent David Levdansky in the Tea Party year of 2010. Saccone beat the 25-plus-year incumbent by 151 votes. Levdansky challenged Saccone two years later, and Saccone won again by a similar margin.
Two pro-Trump groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the race, and the Congressional Leadership Fund opened two campaign offices in the sprawling district for Saccone.
Conor Lamb, the grandson of a former Democratic state Senate majority leader from the South Hills of Pittsburgh, is young (33), a former member of the military (U.S. Marines), and a former assistant federal prosecutor.
He released his first ad today touting his Pittsburgh Catholic school education and showing him at a gun range; Conor has tried to moderate his stances to fit the conservative turf he is running in, but he says he is pro-choice, wants to have a conversation about more gun control, and opposes the recent tax cut.
Despite saying he would not support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker if the Democrats gain control of the House, all of his positions could get him the money and canvassers he needs from outside groups like the pro-choice EMILY's List and Mike Bloomberg’s Independence USA super PAC.
Despite the president’s weak support in the national polls, Trump remains popular in the district; you do not have to travel far to find signs of support for him, big and small, still dotting the landscape.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.