Rick Saccone is a “special person” who is campaigning in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District to replace Rep. Tim Murphy, a pro-life Republican who resigned in disgrace after asking a mistress to have an abortion. Saccone got the “special” seal of approval from President Trump, who leans on the adjective when making a hard sell — for anything from a candidate to the latest Obamacare repeal plan to Derek Jeter to women of the #MeToo movement.
Trump’s trip to tout the GOP tax reform law Thursday coincided with some politicking for Saccone, though the White House insisted the taxpayer-funded trip was strictly, officially, an agenda-promoting jaunt. Naturally the president gave it away in a morning tweet, writing that he was going to give his “total support” to Saccone, and “we need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!” Trump’s enthusiastic push underscores widespread panic among Republicans that the race for PA-18 is tighter than it should be. Far more is on the line than one House seat — and Trump personally wants to break a losing streak showing that, thus far, he is politically useless.
Indeed the hope that Trump would be kingmaker has crashed into the reality that candidates he supports have lost, those he has encouraged to run have declined, and all that winning he promised seems to be happening to Democrats. Not only did the minority party over-perform in special elections that Republicans won last year, but Democrats have had victories in Virginia and Alabama, and this week in Wisconsin — trends that Republicans are finding ominous. Indeed an 11-point win by a Democrat in a state Senate district Trump won by 17 points is a “wake-up call,” Gov. Scott Walker warned his fellow Wisconsin Republicans in a tweet Wednesday morning.
Congressional Republicans, painfully aware of the polling in a challenging electoral landscape, have briefed Trump on their grim assessments. They have also warned him that a Democratic takeover could lead to impeachment proceedings. The president has offered to campaign and fundraise for Republicans. Cash will help, and perhaps campaigning in GOP primaries will also, but Trump’s appeals in general elections likely will not. It’s clear from the data that if he remains radioactive with more than 60 percent of the country he will continue helping to drive even the most politically estranged Democrats to the polls.
This past week and half, just for example, wasn’t helpful for Republicans. After shocking the world with bipartisan outreach on immigration at a televised White House meeting, Trump stepped on it with “s-hole”-gate. Then he tweeted about foreign surveillance he didn’t comprehend and, after nearly derailing a House vote on the legislation and being schooled by House Speaker Paul Ryan on policy he hadn’t bothered to learn or understand, had to tweet a correction. News broke that he reportedly had a lawyer pay off a porn-star mistress a month before the 2016 election. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who must be grateful he’s not facing a tough re-election campaign this year, found himself at a town hall answering angry constituents who accused him of protecting Trump. Grassley’s response, about a president from his own party, was this: “I’m not president of the United States. I’m a check on the president of the United States. That’s my constitutional responsibility. I’m going to do what I can under our Constitution to make sure that nothing bad happens to our country.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s political operation has seasoned Republican campaign veterans worried. While it has been beefed up recently, critics complain it has lacks cohesion, a sense of urgency and a long-term strategy. In Arizona, Trump has praised candidate Kelli Ward in the primary to replace Sen. Jeff Flake, but his pardoned pal, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has also jumped in to the race. This could create familiar confusion for Trump, who endorsed Luther Strange to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general. As Strange polled behind Judge Roy Moore, Trump said at a campaign rally on his behalf that he might later regret his endorsement. When Strange lost to Moore, Trump went against the wishes of Senate Republicans to endorse the nominee, who by that point was drowning in allegations of child predation. Like Strange, Moore lost.
Trump traveled to Utah in December with great fanfare to declare a rollback of protection of federal lands at Bears Ears National Monument — all as a means to butter up Sen. Orrin Hatch and persuade him to run for re-election. The president’s motive was not so much an interest in Hatch gracing the swamp for yet another term, but to block Mitt Romney from running to succeed him. Hatch announced his retirement earlier this month.
Trump also appealed to GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer to run against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, a state he won by 36 points. But Cramer took a pass and chose to run for re-election to his statewide at-large House seat instead.
Trump hopes Florida Gov. Rick Scott will challenge Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson — and last week in what appeared to be an overt political gift, the Sunshine State received the only waiver from the administration’s unpopular new policy on offshore drilling. But thus far Scott hasn’t taken the reins on a Senate run.
After staying on script Thursday about the benefits of tax reform during his factory visit in Coraopolis, Pa. — and only talking up Saccone a bit — Trump declared he would be “back for Rick, and we’re going to fill up a stadium, and we’re going to do something really special for Rick.”
Helpful, maybe not. But special indeed.