URL:

What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Close race in deep red Pennsylvania district is crucial enthusiasm test for both parties

Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, where Pittsburgh suburbs give way to industrial towns and farmland, is reliably red, with a majority of voters having cast their ballots for President Trump. But the special election fight between Rick Saccone and Conor Lamb to replace Republican Tim Murphy is giving Democrats some hope for a pick-up. Lisa Desjardins reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now a congressional race that could be a harbinger of elections to come this fall.

    In 2018, President Trump won big in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, outside of Pittsburgh, but polls ahead of tomorrow's special election there show the Republican, Rick Saccone, in a dead heat with Democrat Conor Lamb. It's an early and critical test of enthusiasm for both political parties.

    Lisa Desjardins just returned from Western Pennsylvania and brings us this report.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's not yet 9 a.m., and this custom crate manufacturing company in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, is already buzzing.

    Owner Jack Davis says business is, too.

  • Jack Davis:

    Last year was one of the best years we ever had.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Jack is a Republican, and like a majority of people in this district, voted for President Donald Trump.

  • Jack Davis:

    After the first year, he's actually turned out to be a far better president than I even anticipated. If he ran again, I would vote for him again.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That makes his choice in tomorrow's special election an easy one.

  • Jack Davis:

    I will vote for Rick Saccone, reason being that the fact is, he has aligned himself with Trump. So I think we need to continue doing what Trump has started.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pennsylvania's 18th District sit in the southwestern corner of the state, where Pittsburgh's suburbs give way to industrial towns and farmland. And it's reliably red. The district has voted Republican in every presidential election since 2000. It's also been represented in Congress by the same Republican, Tim Murphy, for the last 15 years.

    But he resigned in October after reports that he asked a one-time mistress to have an abortion.

    This time, though, lifelong Democrats like Denny Cregut see a chance for a pickup.

  • Denny Cregut:

    I'm supporting Conor Lamb. He has talked to our unions. One of the big things with his opponent is, he'S basically anti-union.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Denny IS officer with the local United Steelworkers in Canonsburg. He says the president looms large in his choice tomorrow.

  • Denny Cregut:

    I must admit, after the 2016 debacle, and seeing Donald Trump win the presidency because people wanted change, that has made me rise up again, I guess.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This special election pits Republican state Representative Rick Saccone against Democrat Conor Lamb. Saccone plays up his alignment with President Trump, while Lamb barely mentions his name.

    Both are military veterans and in a district that loves hunting.

  • Rick Saccone:

    We should allow our people to exercise their Second Amendment right.

  • Narrator:

    Served four years in the Marines, still loves to shoot.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Both support the Second Amendment.

    The race is attracting a national flood of money, both for the candidates themselves and for outside groups who support or oppose them.

  • Narrator:

    Rick Saccone is dangerously out of touch.

  • Narrator:

    He would be one of Nancy Pelosi's sheep.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    By the time the polls close tomorrow, by one estimate, these candidates and groups will have spent more than $11 million on TV ads alone. It's also attracted high-profile surrogates. Last week, former Vice President Joe Biden hit the campaign trail for Lamb.

  • Joseph Biden:

    Get out and work. Help this man win.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Just this weekend, President Trump made his second visit to the district in just as many months.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Vote for Rick. He will never, ever disappoint you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The Republican in chief touted his new steel and aluminum tariffs in this industrial corner of the state.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Steel is back. It's going to be back too. Steel is back and aluminum is back.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Mr. Trump won this congressional district overwhelmingly, by about 20 points. The question now is whether the enthusiasm for President Trump will convert into enthusiasm for a different Republican.

    Outside the rally for Saccone, locals said it's not the candidate driving their vote so much. It's more the R next to his name.

  • John Haddox:

    I think it's important that we do what we can to elect him and to keep it a Republican seat.

  • Jack Ackerman:

    Anything to put Nancy Pelosi out of office.

  • Jessica Festa:

    I just don't think people know him. And at this point, nobody seems to trust anybody. So if you don't know them — like, everybody knew Donald Trump from just him being him. But who's Rick Saccone?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    To opponents, that's an enthusiasm gap and an opportunity.

  • Woman:

    The more that they're imagining Tuesday, the more likely they vote.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's three days before the election, and the group Voice of Westmoreland is crammed into dining room, about to go door-to-door in the final push for Lamb.

    Just six people a year ago, they now have more than 100 members.

    Co-founder Angela Aldous knows President Trump is popular with her neighbors. And that's become a central part of her group's strategy.

  • Angela Aldous:

    For us, this isn't a thing about, you know, we're out here opposing Trump. While we don't agree with a lot, maybe most of what he stands for, if he weren't president tomorrow, Paul Ryan would still be there, and he would still be trying to gut Medicaid.

    That's how you kind of are able to have conversations with people in this area. Even if they support the president, you can still have so much in common to say, hey, they're not working for us, they're not standing up for us.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There is an underlying theme here, even for supporters of both candidates. They generally distrust longtime politicians in both parties.

  • Jack Davis:

    Sometimes, you look at Democrat and Republicans, it's kind of like a beer. The Democrats are Budweiser, and the Republicans are Bud Light. After a few beers, you can't tell them apart.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On the other side of the district, Denny and his longtime buddies share a beer and the same skepticism.

  • Denny Cregut:

    It's all about money. It's all about power. And they really don't care about the people. And I will be truthful. Sometimes, I feel that way about some Democrats also.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But here's what's different. New groups like Angela's are emerging, and trying to shift the conversation one door at a time. Democrats are counting on that enthusiasm tomorrow, but Angela is looking past this election to the long term.

  • Angela Aldous:

    Wednesday, March 14, we're all going to sleep, finally, after doing so much for this election. And the Lamb campaign will pack up and they will head out and their office will be closed. And we will still be here. Like, we're not going anywhere.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But expect the signs and the candidates to return soon enough. This is a fight for a temporary congressional seat, with just eight months until November's election.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest