The March 13 special election to fill the vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District south of Pittsburgh is widely viewed as a bellwether for the midterm elections later this year, and that’s due in part to candidate Rick Saccone’s (R-Elizabeth) vocal support for President Donald Trump.
Shortly after being nominated by Republican committee members at a convention in November, Saccone, a member of the state House, said his main goal in running for the seat is to bring reinforcements to the White House.
“Our president is down there trying to implement,” Saccone said. “He's being undermined every day – by the media, by academia, by Hollywood, by the Democrats. They're all working against our president.”
Saccone pledged to remain “laser-focused” on advancing the priorities of the Trump administration.
“You know that agenda,” Saccone said to the Republican committee members who nominated him. “It's lowering taxes … reducing government regulation; it's repealing and replacing Obamacare; it's conservative Supreme Court justices. … It’s protecting unborn children!”
Saccone said he would also focus on strengthening the military, improving services for veterans and protecting gun rights.
Courting 'Trump Country'
Saccone's professed loyalty to Trump earned him an endorsement from the president, who the 18th voted for by about 20 points in 2016. The district consists mostly of suburbs, industrial towns and rural communities and is over 90 percent white.
There’s speculation, however, that dissatisfaction with Trump's first year in office could propel Saccone's Democratic opponent, attorney Conor Lamb, of Mt. Lebanon, to Capitol Hill and possibly foreshadow a blue wave in the midterms.
Saccone said he’s not concerned because, to him, western Pennsylvania has long been, and still is, “Trump Country.”
He points to his current legislative district, which includes parts of Allegheny and Washington counties. Although Democrats have held a registration advantage since he was first elected in 2010, he’s continued to win reelection. Saccone said his constituents share his conservative values.
“Democrats vote on the message, just like Republicans do,” he said. “It’s not about the party registration. It’s about the message you deliver, and whether they can trust you. And people that know me know I’m sincere, and that I’ll do what I say.”
Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, a Democrat, agreed Trump remains popular, despite the Democratic Party's edge on registration.
“A lot of people here are fiercely, fiercely independent,” Maggi said, “and they like that fact that there’s somebody down there that’s, in their view, shaking up the politicians.”
Lessons from North Korea
A graduate of Elizabeth Forward High School in the Mon Valley, Saccone served for more than a decade in the U.S. Air Force before working in international business and diplomacy and becoming a political science professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
Saccone said he considers a highlight of his career to be a diplomatic mission he completed in North Korea from 2000 to 2001, when he oversaw the construction of a nuclear power plant as part of the Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea. The deal temporarily halted the North’s nuclear weapons program.
He chronicled the experience in a 2006 book – one of nine he’s written – and recalls many tense moments.
“One of the things I learned,” he said, “is that old saying of putting yourself on the same side as your negotiating partner and putting the problem on the other side of the table. And when you do that, now we're both trying to find common ground to solve a problem rather than trying to be defensive.”
Saccone vowed to take the same approach in Congress. Like Trump, he said he’s willing to compromise on immigration. And, while committed to the Second Amendment, he backs stricter punishment for crimes involving firearms.
'A big goose egg'
But before Saccone can get to the negotiating table, he’ll have to win the special election next month. Given his support for right-to-work laws, organized labor could pose significant opposition in this union-heavy district, said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder.
“His record, as far as unions and working families in Pennsylvania, has been zero, not 1 percent or 2 percent – a big goose egg,” Snyder explained. “He’s never been with us.”
Saccone said that opposition from union leadership won’t necessarily cost him votes. Many union members might be inclined to vote for him, he suggested, because they think, with his promise to roll back regulations, he’ll help businesses and save jobs.
“Their members vote for me, so I echo the words of Ronald Reagan who said, 'I'll let the Democrats keep the union leadership; I'll keep the rank and file members.'”