President Trump has cancelled plans to visit London, blaming Barack Obama for a “bad deal” involving the U.S. embassy there which actually dates back to the Bush Administration. But another recent announcement about the president’s future schedule drew a bit less notice: Trump plans to visit Pennsylvania next week.
The president will take a trip to Southwestern Pennsylvania next Thursday, Jan. 18. The primary purpose of his visit is to support Rick Saccone, the Republican running in the March 13 special election to fill the 18th Congressional District seat vacated by disgraced Republican Congressman Tim Murphy.
According to Politico, which framed the trip as the White House “scrambling to avoid another special election disaster,” Trump will also visit an unspecified factory outside of Pittsburgh in order to promote the tax bill that passed late last year. Vice President Mike Pence also plans to visit the district, possibly more than once, prior to the special election.
The 18th, like many Pennsylvania congressional districts, is oddly shaped due to gerrymandering. It consists of both rural areas and suburbs of Pittsburgh and pushes up to the southwest corner of the state, bordering both Ohio and West Virginia.
The district, which was once represented in Congress by Rick Santorum, is pretty solidly conservative. The Cook Partisan Voting Index gives it a score of R+11, and Trump carried the district 58-39 percent on his way to winning Pennsylvania in 2016. Murphy, prior to his downfall, ran unopposed in 2016.
The Democratic candidate is Conor Lamb, a Marine, University of Pennsylvania graduate, and former U.S. Attorney. So, pardon the pun, Lamb is hardly sacrificial; he’s a very qualified candidate.
Can Democrats actually flip this seat?
It’s a long shot, but there are reasons to hope.
For one thing, it surely doesn’t help the GOP that Murphy resigned in disgrace — especially the kind of disgrace where a stridently pro-life lawmaker was found to have encouraged his mistress to terminate a pregnancy.
As it turns out, it’s almost always a bad sign for the party in power when one of its members resigns for any reason, as Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report recently pointed out:
Here's a stat that should be telling on the Royce/Issa seats: in the last 3 midterms, in situations where incumbents have retired from districts carried by the opposite party in the most recent prez election, the incumbent's party has batted 0% trying to hold it (0/10).
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) January 11, 2018
Trump’s general unpopularity may not help his party in the 18th district much either, and could certainly cut into that 19-point margin of victory. Can Trump improve that by visiting the district? Maybe — but he could also commit some major, humiliating gaffe during the trip, and the president has been averaging one or two of those a day lately.
The other reason for Democratic optimism? According to that Politico piece on the upcoming trip, White House political aides recently met with Saccone — and White House political director Bill Stepien has expressed concerns with the candidate’s levels of fundraising.
Even if Lamb fails to grab the seat in the March special election, there will of course be another election for the seat in November, giving Democrats another crack at flipping an open seat blue.
President Trump’s win in Pennsylvania, a state the GOP had been trying in vain to flip for several cycles, plays an outsized role in the mythology of the 2016 election, especially after all of those embarrassing journalistic deep dives into “Trump Country” (one of the most infamous of which was in Johnstown, a city that Hillary Clinton actually won.)
But there are also plenty of people in Pennsylvania who would love to see the reversal of Trumpism begin in the Keystone State. The March 13 election will be the first shot, of many, for the state to do that in 2018.