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Issued: 2018-03-13

By David Morgan

CANONSBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - Republicans are scrambling to avoid a political disaster in a conservative district of Pennsylvania, where a pro-gun, pro-union Democrat who opposes abortion could be about to win a congressional election in one of President Donald Trump's white, working-class strongholds.

Democrat Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor, is in a dead heat with Republican state Representative Rick Saccone in Tuesday's special election for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that Republicans have held since 2003.

The race is seen as a referendum on Trump and a harbinger for November's congressional midterm elections, according to pollsters and party insiders who say the moderate Democrat could emerge as a model for Democratic candidates in other competitive House districts that Trump carried in 2016.

"The Democrats have nominated the ideal candidate, because he fits the profile of the electorate. If they'd nominated a liberal who allowed the campaign to become nationalized, it would be over by now," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

"If he wins, or even if he just comes close, he is a model for Democrats in competitive Trump districts nationally."

Trump won the district, in southwest Pennsylvania, by nearly 20 points in 2016.

Republican dominance has been so strong here that Democrats ran no candidates in the last two U.S. House elections, even though state voter registration records show Democrats outnumbering Republicans.


But the dynamics have changed in the district, which runs from wealthy suburbs south of Pittsburgh through hardscrabble steel and coal mining towns to farmlands along the West Virginia border.

Saccone, 60, a conservative who has described himself as "Trump before Trump was Trump," led the race by more than 10 percentage points in January. The contest has since narrowed to a toss-up on a wave of Democratic voter enthusiasm for Lamb.

A Monmouth University poll on Monday showed Lamb ahead.

Bob Zelleznick, 59, of Bethel Park, said he intends to vote for Lamb and hopes for a Democratic win that would make the White House sit up and take notice.

"This is important because I think it will send a message to Washington: a lot of people are unhappy with the administration,” Zelleznick said.

The White House has arranged a string of visits to energize Saccone's base. Trump himself has visited twice. The area has also seen Vice President Mike Pence, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, and on the eve of Election Day, the president's son Donald Trump Jr.

"When President Trump's in your corner, how can you lose?" Saccone told supporters at a weekend rally with the president.

A college professor and former Air Force counterintelligence officer, Saccone won an endorsement from the influential Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, which praised his greater experience and knowledge of the district.

β€œHe supports small business owners and would do anything for you to make sure that your business is successful,” said Stephanie Squibb, 48, of Elizabeth, who owns a local printing company.

But Saccone has not had much luck running on the Republican national agenda. Tax cuts, the Republican Party's only major achievement under Trump, have done little to energize local voters, some of whom dismiss the sweeping tax overhaul as a giveaway to the wealthy. [nL2N1Q8024]


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