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VP Pence Visits Pennsylvania To Campaign In Congressional Special Election


Vice President Mike Pence was in western Pennsylvania today campaigning for the Republican running in a special election there.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Would you give another round of applause to the next congressman from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania...


PENCE: ...Rick Saccone?

KELLY: It's the latest race that is making the GOP nervous. Republicans won the district handily in 2016. But this time around, Democrats think they have a shot. NPR's Scott Detrow reports.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District shouldn't be a close race. The southwest corner of the state has elected Republicans by wider and wider margins in recent years. President Trump won nearly 60 percent of the vote here in 2016, helping him become the first Republican to carry Pennsylvania since 1988.


PENCE: Thanks to all of you, on a November night in 2016, this president turned the blue wall red.


DETROW: And yet, Vice President Mike Pence is campaigning here, and Trump was here two weeks ago. Ray Zaborney is a Republican strategist who's run a lot of races in western Pennsylvania. He blames the broader political dynamics for the fact the race looks relatively tight.

RAY ZABORNEY: Democrats are enthusiastic to get out and vote against Republicans, at least some Democrats. And I think you see just natural increases in turnout.

DETROW: That's even more the case in special elections where turnout is lower. It's why Democrats cut deep into the usual Republican victory margins in all of last year's special House races, though they didn't flip any of them. So Republicans like Saccone are sticking to a pretty basic message.


RICK SACCONE: Don't forget about that date now, March 13.

DETROW: And outside conservative groups are pouring millions of dollars into TV ads. Still, Democrat Conor Lamb's campaign is outraising Saccone's. The young first-time candidate comes from a prominent local political family and has an appealing resume.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He grew up here, went to Central Catholic, then college and law school, served four years in the Marines, still loves to shoot, became a federal prosecutor.

DETROW: Democrat Bill DeWeese represented the southern part of the district in the statehouse for decades before resigning after a corruption conviction. He thinks Lamb's moderate profile gives him a real chance of winning.

BILL DEWEESE: They will not be able to talk about him being anti-gun. They will not be able to wrap Mrs. Pelosi around him in some concocted TV commercial.

DETROW: Lamb has said he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader. That hasn't stopped the TV ads.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How do we know Conor Lamb will join Pelosi's liberal flock? He already has. Lamb joined Pelosi to oppose a middle-class tax cut, calling your tax cut crumbs.

DETROW: Amid all that, Lamb's campaign is playing it cautiously. You'll notice he's not in this story. Lamb has been shy with the press. The campaign said Lamb did not have any public events yesterday. But hours later, he posted pictures on Twitter with Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy speaking to a full room of supporters. Republicans are nervous enough that Pence was here today and the president is expected to come back before the election. So much White House involvement could make it look like Republicans are seriously concerned. Zaborney doesn't see it that way.

ZABORNEY: We have a race. It's probably closer than we'd want it to be, and that's probably how it'll end. But we take it seriously. And obviously you leave everything on the field. So having the president, vice president go as a precaution - that is a luxury to be able to take on a special election that's the only thing happening right now.

DETROW: The GOP can focus on this race and probably do the damage control needed to keep it red. Republican's broader concern - what will happen later this year when voters in dozens of districts more competitive than this one are all heading to the polls on the same day. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Bethel Park, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.