WASHINGTON ― What happens to a president who hosts a rally for a candidate in an obscure special election but then watches that candidate lose anyway?
President Donald Trump’s political advisers don’t really want to find out. Which is why less than two weeks away from the March 13 election to fill a traditionally Republican congressional seat in western Pennsylvania, his team has yet to finalize an appearance by him.
A March 10 rally with Rick Saccone, the GOP candidate for the House District 18 seat, is still only “tentative” for Trump, according to multiple sources. One Republican consultant close to Trump’s political operation said the tightening of the race in recent weeks has sparked worries of the damage to Trump should Saccone lose despite a presidential visit.
“They’ll wave off if the numbers don’t get better,” the consultant said on the condition of anonymity.
A mid-February Gravis poll gave Saccone a 6-percentage point lead over Democrat Conor Lamb ― just half the size of what the Republican enjoyed the previous month. A Monmouth University poll, also from mid-February, showed Saccone with a 3-point lead, within the poll’s error margin of plus-or-minus 5.5 points.
In the 2016 presidential race, Trump won the district by 19 points. The special election is to replace former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned late last year because of a sex scandal. First elected in 2002, Murphy ran unopposed in 2014 and 2016.
A White House official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity said the characterization of Trump’s political operation fearing damage to him should Saccone lose was not accurate. Rather, Trump would likely not bother going to the Pittsburgh suburbs if polling shows that Saccone is clearly winning or if he is clearly losing.
“They want to get closer and see what the race looks like,” the official said. “If there’s a need, he’ll go.”
Trump already suffered two high-profile election defeats during his first year in office, as Democrats have swarmed to the polls to register their displeasure with the new president and his policies.
Trump backed Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia governor’s race in November, warning voters that their economy would tank and that a Salvadoran gang would send crime rates skyrocketing if the Democratic candidate were to win. Gillespie lost by nine points.
The next month, Trump backed defrocked judge and accused child molester Roy Moore for a Senate seat in Alabama, which Republicans had held for decades. Democrat Doug Jones won by a little less than 2 points.
The president blamed Gillespie for losing the Virginia race, arguing that had the candidate embraced Trump more fully, he would have won. And after Moore’s loss, Trump pointed out that in the GOP primary he had endorsed Moore’s opponent, Luther Strange.
Trump did not physically campaign for Gillespie. He did wind up publicly praising Moore, but at a rally in Pensacola, Florida ― across Perdido Bay from Alabama.
In Saccone’s race, Trump issued a statement via Twitter the morning of Jan. 18: “Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13). Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!”
That day’s visit, though, was an official one to tout the newly passed tax cuts. While Trump briefly praised Saccone ― “He’s a great guy; loves this area, loves this country” ― the campaign visit was to come later, at a Feb. 21 rally.
By mid-February, though, the polls were showing increasing Democratic enthusiasm in the contest. And when the Florida school massacre took place on Feb. 14, Trump’s political operation cited it in their announcement that the following week’s rally had been canceled.
Matt Mackowiak, a campaign consultant and chair of the county Republican Party in Austin, Texas, said a Saccone loss would speak more to the overall political environment than say anything about Trump personally.
“More importantly, it would show Democrats can pick up the kind of seat they need to get the [House] majority,” he said.