The stink of Republican desperation fouls Trump’s Pennsylvania turf

Republican Rick Saccone, left, and Democrat Connor Lamb before the taping of their first debate in the special election in the Pa., 18th Congressional District at the KDKA TV studios, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The debate was recorded in the afternoon and scheduled to be broadcast at 7 PM Monday.

Republican Rick Saccone, left, and Democrat Connor Lamb before the taping of their first debate in the special election in the Pa., 18th Congressional District at the KDKA TV studios, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The debate was recorded in the afternoon and scheduled to be broadcast at 7 PM Monday. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

You can tell that Republicans are bracing for a humiliating congressional election defeat tonight in southwestern Pennsylvania — on ruby-red Trump turf, no less — by simply tracking their increasingly desperate behavior.

Republican candidate Rick Saccone, who has touted himself as Trump’s “wingman,” declared last night that many of the people who intend to vote for opponent Conor Lamb “have a hatred of our country. I’ll tell you some more. They have a hatred for God.” Confident candidates typically close their campaigns with a high-road inspirational message; Trump’s wingman sounded more like a cornered animal whose only recourse was low-road demagoguery.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Republican chairman has been trying to pre-spin a defeat by claiming that the election is happening in “a Democrat district.” That’s hilarious fake news. The state’s 18th congressional district, in the rural and suburban towns outside Pittsburgh, is so red that Democrats didn’t even bother to field House candidates in 2014 or 2016. It’s so red (and 92 percent white) that in the presidential voting of 2012, Mitt Romney won it by 17 points. In 2016, Trump won it by 19 points. Nonpartisan stat-crunchers in Washington say the district is 11 points more Republican than America as a whole.

Republicans know what’s at stake tonight. This race is a freeze-frame referendum on Trump, who virtually invited it by showing up this weekend to talk for 70 minutes about himself. If Republicans can’t hold a seat in a district like this, or even if they manage to win it narrowly, what will that portend for November — when they’ll be fighting to hang onto the House in districts where the demographics are far less favorable?

Tonight’s election — filling the seat vacated by Republican Tim Murphy, an abortion foe who quit after admitting that he’d asked his extramarital mistress to consider an abortion — should’ve been a Republican gimme. Trump shouldn’t have needed to stump for Saccone and spew his usual lies. Trump Jr. shouldn’t have needed to show up twice. Mike Pence shouldn’t have needed to parachute in. Outside conservative groups shouldn’t have needed to pump $10 million into a race that, on paper, shouldn’t have required them to spend a dime.

But they felt compelled to perform triage because the poll numbers looked dire. A sizeable blue-wave backlash to Trump has been building for awhile, with no signs of deceleration. Trump’s credibly accused child molester lost an Alabama Senate race. Trump’s favored candidate, running on Trump themes, was wiped out in a Virginia gubernatorial race. At the grassoots level, 39 state legislative seats have flipped from red to blue since Trump took the oath (Republicans have flipped only four). All told, Democrats and blue-tilting independents seem far more stoked to vote.

By the way, this assessment of Trump’s Saturday gig on the Pennsylvania stump is priceless. Peter Wehner, a White House aide for Reagan and both Bushes, tweeted:

Three closing polls in Pennsylvania show Democratic candidate and former prosecutor Conor Lamb with a small lead. The polls could all be wrong, of course, but the GOP is behaving as if they’re right. Trump tried to mock “Lamb the Sham” (priceless: Cadet Bone Spurs, attacking an ex-Marine), but Trump is already preparing to absolve himself from blame in the wake of a loss, instead trashing Saccone for being a lousy candidate.

By all accounts, Saccone is a lousy candidate. But in normal times, a guy like him — a seasoned Harrisburg lawmaker — should be coasting with a percentage lead in double digits. Something bigger than him is weighing him down. Care to guess what? It’s the Trump record (or lack thereof).

In the district 18 months ago, Trump won 58 percent of the presidential votes. Today, according to the district polls, his approval rating is 44 percent. If that’s the mood in MAGA-land, it doesn’t bode well for Saccone. Most of those Trump dropouts will probably spurn Saccone by staying home. Republicans had also planned to bestir their base by touting the wonders of the tax cut law, but they wound up pulling their ads because the cuts didn’t resonate. Voters apparently figured out that the GOP’s purported achievement is a crock that puts a pittance in their pockets. And the district’s white-collar Pittsburgh suburbs are likely to be Lamb territory; according to a nonpartisan national poll in January, Trump’s approval rating, among college-educated white voters, was a paltry 29 percent.

We’ll know soon enough whether Trump’s wingman can spare Trump the embarrassment of a loss in Trump country. And if Democrats do manage to pull off a victory that should never have happened, how will Trump tweet about it? He put himself on the line for that seat. If the seat flips from red to blue — in the first Democratic House win of the Trump era — it will be worth it just to parse his reaction.

Speaking of tweets, why hasn’t Trump thumbed a word about the nerve gas attack in Salisbury, England — the “state-sponsored attempted murder” that the British prime minister has basically pinned on Russia? Trump professes to be strong on terrorism, so why is he weak on this incident? Gee, I wonder.

Maybe he just figures the culprit “could be lots of people, it could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

And maybe it’s sheer coincidence that mere hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke the silence and declared that the evidence “clearly” points to Russia, he’s suddenly out of a job. Sheer coincidence. I bet the Republicans in Congress will get right on it.

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