MT. LEBANON, Pa. — For the next three weeks, he's the most important candidate for anything in American politics.
While pundits widely focus on his Democratic rival Conor Lamb (understandably, as Lamb is young, progressive, has a military background, and comes from a pedigree political family), it just may be Rick Saccone who is the one to watch.
Why? Because everything that is at stake for both political parties rests on his shoulders.
If Lamb wins, then every Democrat running in a swing district across the country will try to adapt the Lamb strategy: Avoid the press, take no strong stands on any issue, and just focus on saying over and over again that as a candidate, you support new leadership on both sides of the aisle.
If Lamb loses, it's back to the #Resistance.
In this district that Trump won by 20 points, a Lamb victory would confirm the prediction that the world has shifted away from both President Trump and the Republican Party.
And if we are being completely honest, even if Saccone wins, the prediction that the world has shifted away from Trump and Republicans will still be the story.
Lamb gets a lot of attention for his military service as a U.S. Marine captain, rightly so, not just for his service his country, but because it is a candidate background the Democrats have shied away from since 2006.
Saccone is also a U.S. Air Force veteran who served as a counterintelligence and special agent for over a decade, then served as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army in Iraq between 2004 and 2005.
And during the George W. Bush administration, he held the distinction of having served as a diplomat to North Korea from 2000 to 2001 and was the only U.S. citizen living in Pyongyang at the time.
Saccone went back to school, completed his PhD in public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, and then became a professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
Saccone is unapologetically pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, and not afraid of tough races; he won both of his state House seats by a couple hundred votes in a district that had been held by a Democrat for over twenty years and had been drawn to favor Democrats.
“I approach every race as the underdog,” he said.
“Remember, my first election, I was in a 76 percent Democrat district gerrymandered to keep a Democrat in power for 26 years. It worked well. My wife and I knocked on 18,000 doors. We got our message out in front of people, and we won that race."
Saccone recalls 2012, "an Obama reelection year where 8,000 additional voters were going to come out in that same 76 percent Democrat district, meaning 76 percent of those were likely to be Democrats, and there was even less chance that we would win, but we won again,” he said.
“We did it by getting out. Getting our message to the people. The more people that we can get in front of and tell our message to, the better chance we have of winning,” he said.
He is also completely comfortable and unapologetic about how he has worked across the aisle with Democrats in the state House: "If I can do it in North Korea, I should be able to do it anywhere.”
"Most of my bills have passed either unanimously or nearly unanimously, which says I can actually reach across the aisle and do these things," he said. "My most recent bill [the Internet Sexual Predator Bill] passed unanimously. Signed into law by a liberal governor, endorsed by a liberal Democrat attorney general. So, my ideas have been voted on by people on both sides of the aisle."
Saccone said his biggest challenge in winning the race is making sure everyone knows to get out to vote. “A lot of people aren't sure of the date, March 13th. That’s only a couple of weeks away, and they aren’t sure if it’s a primary or a general election; a lot of Democrats thought it was a primary, and they couldn't vote for me,” he said of Pennsylvania’s closed primary elections.
Saccone is everywhere in the district: He is knocking on doors, he is meeting with local groups, large and small, he is making phone calls, his ads are up, and he is receiving a flood of marquee support from the White House. President Trump will visit the area this Wednesday to hold a rally just outside the district to rally the troops. He’s been here before, not officially for Saccone, but on an official visit to tout tax reform; Trump introduced Saccone along with the rest of the GOP Pennsylvania delegation that went with him, but that was it.
Saccone made the most of the moment and went out into the crowd and shook hands with every person there.
Vice President Mike Pence held a fundraiser and a rally for him in the district two weeks ago; Saccone shook hands and chatted with every person who walked in the door. When Ivanka Trump and Linda McMahon held a roundtable for local businesses in the district last week, on the same street that Lamb lives, he was there to talk about working across the aisle in the state legislature to help free up regulations.
He’s disappointed that little attention has been paid to his background in the stories about his public service. “They rarely say that I'm a career military officer, 18 years in the service. They don't say I have a PhD in international relations, that I've been an international diplomat. That I've been to North Korea. That I have experience in counterterrorism and counterintelligence. That I've written nine books. That I've been to 75 countries and been an international businessman and that I have basically 40 years of experience, life experience in five areas: diplomacy, government, the military, business, and academia. That's something you can't replicate,” he said.
Either way, both camps predict a close race — and a Monmouth University poll released Thursday showed Saccone with a 3-point lead. The poll used a turnout model "similar to voting patterns seen in other special elections over the past year,” according to pollster Patrick Murray.
Even with that lead, Saccone feels like the underdog. Which is how he likes it.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.