Republicans are launching an aggressive ground game in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District more than three months before voters head to the polls for the special election.
This is a race to replace U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned after revelations that he asked his mistress to have an abortion during a pregnancy scare.
The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) -- House Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC -- will announce Friday it is opening two offices in the district from where they say they will manage efforts to knock on 250,000 doors.
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CLF’s data director is moving to the district to oversee 50 paid door-knockers-- targeting voters from now until Election Day.
The goal is to energize the Republican base to increase voter turnout on Election.
Republicans claim that the March 13 election date -- chosen by Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf -- benefits Democrats because it is the only race on the ballot.
The primary to select the Republican candidates who will run against U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf isn’t until May 15, leaving Republicans unsure if voters will turn out for the March special election with just one race on the ballot.
Republicans, though publicly supporting state Rep. Rick Saccone, have fears about their candidate’s chances against Democratic nominee Conor Lamb.
A Republican campaign strategist described the race as a “D-candidate” versus an “A-candidate,” indicating he did not see the Republican as the strongest candidate in the race.
CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss said that Saccone is a “proven conservative who will stand for Pennsylvania families and their values.”
Republicans plan to frame the race around Lamb’s ties to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, making the campaign a referendum on the party’s Washington leadership.
Bliss told Channel 11 News that if Lamb heads to Washington, he will be “nothing more than a foot soldier in her liberal war on America.”
CLF has two wins under its belt with this game plan going into the race.
It was the first outside group on the ground in the special election in Georgia’s 6th District, where it spent more than $7 million and knocked on 300,000 doors to elect Karen Handel over Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Democrats are employing a similar strategy and will seek to tie Saccone to House Speaker Ryan and an agenda they say benefits the ultra-wealthy at the expense of middle-class western Pennsylvanians.
“The reality of PA-18 is that though it's been challenging in the past, there’s opportunity because Paul Ryan’s agenda is not popular,” said a Democratic strategist.
Another state Democratic source called Republican Rick Saccone an “ideological extremist who will make Washington even more dysfunctional.”
Even though President Donald Trump carried the district by 20 points, multiple Democratic sources involved in the race describe it as winnable.
Mike Mikus is a Democratic operative who has experience in special elections in Pennsylvania --previously managing Mark Critz’s successful campaign in the 12th District back in 2010.
He said the challenge for Lamb will be to get more than 50 percent of the vote in Allegheny County. That would put him in a position to win with a mid-40 percent range in Washington and Greene County and dropping off to about 40 percent of votes in Westmoreland County-- the historically red areas of the district.
The Lamb campaign has so far opened offices in Westmoreland and Greene counties, targeting the two reddest areas of the district where Lamb will have to convince some Republican and independent voters to cast their ballot for a young Democrat.
Mikus showed Channel 11 the data he collected on the Superior Court races from November. The most recent election shows a district evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Mikus says Lamb will also benefit greatly from the endorsement of major labor groups in the state.
“There will be a concerted effort both among active Democrats and also with allies like organized labor to turn out voters,” said Mikus.
National Democrats appear cautiously optimistic about the race.
House Majority PAC is assessing the race in real time.
House Majority PAC Executive Director Charlie Kelly said Lamb is “an incredibly strong, well credentialed candidate” who is focused on the “right priorities.”
Democrats and Republicans are also strategizing about the national names they will bring into the district to stump for their candidates.
A survey conducted by CLF found that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence remain popular in the district.
Both of Pennsylvania’s U.S. senators tell Channel 11 News they support their party’s candidates in the race.
In a statement endorsing Lamb, Democrat Sen. Bob Casey said Lamb “is focused on the issues that matter most to Pennsylvanians: growing wages, creating jobs, and investing in our infrastructure.”
Aides for Toomey and Casey said there were no specific plans at this point for them to campaign on behalf of the candidates.
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