What's at stake in the Pennsylvania special election

Voters divided ahead of Pennsylvania election
Voters divided ahead of Pennsylvania election

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Mike Dillon, Ph.D., teaches journalism and is chair of the media department at Duquesne University. The views expressed here are solely the author's.

(CNN)When I moved a bit farther out into Pittsburgh's southern suburbs just ahead of the 2016 election, a fair number of my new neighbors' yards sported Trump/Pence signs, with one lonely Clinton/Kaine sign holding down the corner.

Eighteen months later, as the special House election between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone looms, campaign signs have sprouted in many more yards and Lamb is definitely leading in my very unscientific sign poll. And, Lamb signs are anchored in a few yards that heralded Trump in 2016. (Most scientific polls indicate the race is a dead heat in a district Romney and Trump won handily.)
Mike Dillon
For a local election, there has been precious little emphasis on local issues by either campaign. In an age of hyper-partisanship, Tip O'Neill's truism that all politics is local has been turned on its head. Today, most politics is national, even nationalistic. And that is true in Pennsylvania's 18th district, which likely won't exist in its current form come November's midterm elections, thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrawing the state's legislative map to redress decades of gerrymandering.
But for now, in a deeply gerrymandered district whose far-flung constituents have little in common ideologically, educationally, economically or culturally, the election will be decided not by any policy nuance or local infrastructure plan but by a brutal calculus: Which 18th District will turn out the most voters on March 13?
    Lamb leads in local fundraising, but both candidates have substantially benefited from outside funders (Saccone much more so than Lamb) -- partisans who see Lamb and Saccone not as visionaries, not as leaders, not as emerging lights of a strong American democracy, but as reliable votes for their national agendas, the means to a majority.
    Like most local candidates everywhere today, Lamb and Saccone are mere surrogates for national partisan interests rather than advocates for a clearly defined local constituency.
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    However, it is a fractured local constituency, deeply divided on emotional and ideological lines rather than local issues, that will decide the race. Campaign ads make it clear that -- at least for the candidates and their parties -- this race is not about the fate of western Pennsylvania but the face of the American future.
    The difference in ad strategy is stark: To the surprise of no one who has covered the political silly season, one of the first GOP Saccone ads (produced and paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund) was a play on his opponent's name -- he's a sheep who is led by Nancy Pelosi (get it?). In fact, images of Pelosi, that bogeywoman of the right, her mouth pinched, her visage darkened, are featured in most GOP anti-Lamb spots.
    Conversely, Lamb has publicly rejected Pelosi but trod warily around Trump. Saccone certainly hasn't. He calls himself "Trump before Trump was Trump." Trump made his second visit to Pittsburgh to rally support for Saccone -- and himself -- on Saturday, praising Saccone and pleading with his base to deliver him to Washington: "I need people who can help me," Trump said. "And this guy can really help me." Former Vice President Joe Biden was in town on Tuesday to stump for Lamb.
    Meanwhile, a Willie Horton-esque attack ad in heavy rotation on local television has stoked racial animosity and paints Lamb as soft on crime. The ad charges that as a federal prosecutor Lamb cut a deal (cue sinister music over a hand cutting lines of coke) to give a black "drug kingpin" a light sentence. The Lamb camp countered with an ad featuring his old boss, former US Attorney David Hickton, who says, in essence, don't you believe it!
    As for what is at stake in western Pennsylvania: Trump's announcement that he will impose tariffs on steel imports certainly plays well to that segment of the population who went for him in 2016 because ... what else is there to lose? The mills are mostly gone.
    In the 18th district, the affluent suburban executives and employees who power Pittsburgh's booming Eds, Meds and Tech economy went for Hillary in a big way. Meanwhile, smaller towns in the sprawling district that were once solidly Democratic do not share in Pittsburgh's hip blend of craft brews, tapas joints and "bicycle culture," nor the bounty they represent. Instead, they are ravaged by opioid addiction, high unemployment and damaged pride.
    Saccone is giddily all-in on tariffs. In their most recent debate, Lamb reluctantly supported tariffs aimed at "bad actors," like China, who dump cheap steel. Denouncing tariffs altogether in "Steelers Country" would be political suicide.
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    The farther east or west you go from the epicenter of the district map just south of downtown Pittsburgh, the more NRA stickers (both Saccone and Lamb oppose AR-15 and bump stock bans) you are likely to see. A gun-loving protectionist Democrat would be an anomaly in most districts, but in western Pennsylvania that's how what's left of the left rolls.
    Many decaying mill towns in the Mon Valley were working men's paradises just a few decades ago, with good union jobs and high wages. The people who toiled in the mines and mills that once thrived here worked like dogs but they were rewarded with a slice of the pie; their children, not so much. Many of them are not terribly interested in identity politics or transgender rights or the fate of undocumented immigrants they believe pose a threat to what few economic opportunities might be left for them and their children.
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    At Saturday's rally, after Trump boasted about his outreach to North Korea, castigated Democrats as coddlers of vicious gangs and bashed the news media, Saccone finally got a word in edgewise.
    In speaking for himself, he might just as well have been speaking for Trump's most fervid supporters in western Pennsylvania: "If President Trump's in your corner," Saccone said, "how can you lose?"