Shortly after the new year, Rep. Steve Stivers, the House GOP campaign chief, delivered a stern message to Pennsylvania Republican special election candidate Rick Saccone.
You need to start to pulling your weight, Stivers implored Saccone, a mustachioed 60-year-old state legislator who is carrying the weight of the Republican Party in a crucial contest next week.
Stivers’s warning, described by two people familiar with the call, was intended to put the candidate on notice. The national GOP would be helping him out substantially, Stivers said. But if Saccone didn’t start upping his fundraising game and getting his sluggish campaign in order, he could lose a race that should be a gimme for the party.
Saccone said he understood. But in the weeks to come, the National Republican Congressional Committee quietly dispatched a staffer to the district to walk Saccone, who lacked any donor infrastructure, through the basics of how to fundraise. Stivers had several more conversations with the candidate to try to prod him along.
Tuesday’s special election, which is being held in a district that President Donald Trump won by 20 percentage points, has emerged as the latest testing ground of whether Republicans are headed for a midterm bloodbath. A loss would be wholly embarrassing, many Republicans privately acknowledge, given that it would take place in a state that Trump made a cornerstone of his 2016 victory. And the themes that the GOP has highlighted in the special election — namely tax cuts and opposition to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — are the centerpieces of the party’s 2018 campaign plan.
But as Election Day grows closer, the national GOP is increasingly pinning the blame on Saccone. In interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, senior House Republicans, and top party strategists, Saccone was nearly universally panned as a deeply underwhelming candidate who leaned excessively on the national party to execute a massive, multimillion dollar rescue effort. It was complete with visits from the president, the vice president, and several cabinet members.
They describe a candidate who largely ignored pleas to raise the money he needed, who blindsided the White House and the national party with his choice of a political strategist, and whose amateur-style social media feed included low-quality videos of him at a local bar and yukking it up with Santa. To make matters worse, Saccone is up against a Democratic rival the party could hardly have engineered had it tried: Conor Lamb, an Ivy League-educated 33-year-old Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor.
Lamb has used a nearly $4 million war chest to cast himself as independent of his party, airing slickly-produced TV ads underscoring his aversion to Pelosi and his fondness for shooting machine guns. He has a campaign staff of 16 full-time employees, compared to just four working for Saccone.
“Candidate quality matters, and when one candidate outraises the other five-to-one, that creates real challenges for outside groups trying to win a race,” said Corry Bliss, who oversees the principal House GOP-aligned super PAC, which has conducted an expansive TV and field deployment effort aimed at pushing Saccone over the top.
The Saccone campaign declined to comment.
Many Republicans expect that Saccone will ultimately prevail, thanks largely to the conservative nature of the southwestern Pennsylvania district and the national GOP’s effort. Yet three senior party strategists said they’d reviewed internal polling data in recent days pointing to a narrow Lamb lead, raising alarms. And this week, the Republican National Committee conducted a data analysis finding that just 47 percent of voters in the district viewed Saccone favorably, three percentage points lower than Trump.
The concerns go all the way to the White House. Trump appeared with Saccone at an event in January, and in the weeks that followed he described the candidate as less-than-ideal, according to three people who’ve spoken with him. In February, Trump planned to attend a fundraiser with Saccone, but in the days leading up to the event, the president’s aides privately grew fearful that Saccone wouldn’t be able to draw a sufficient number of donors to the event. (The fundraiser was ultimately cancelled due to the Parkland, Florida school shooting.)
Trump’s advisers, several of whom have been dispatched to the district, have been miffed, too. During one recent White House meeting, Saccone was critiqued by several administration officials. At one point, first daughter Ivanka Trump, who appeared with Saccone at a small business roundtable near Pittsburgh in February, was asked for her thoughts.
The younger Trump told colleagues that overall she’d been impressed by the candidate, who she described as kind and intelligent. But she noted that Saccone seemed to lack the charisma of many politicians.
On Monday, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway was taken aback when NBC reported that Saccone had said last year that the government was limited in what it could do to stem the opioid epidemic, which has hit southwestern Pennsylvania hard. Conway, who is Trump’s opioids point person and is slated to appear with Saccone on Thursday, responded to the story by telling colleagues that Saccone and other 2018 candidates should be highlighting the administration’s efforts to combat the crisis.
With Trump set to campaign with Saccone on Saturday evening, some White House officials have questioned whether the president should scrap the trip, fearful that a Saccone loss would be seen as even more of a rebuke to the president. But Trump has told aides in recent days he’s going anyway, convinced that he’ll likely be blamed for a defeat regardless.
Capitol Hill Republicans had hoped for another nominee. But late last year, when Pennsylvania Republicans selected their candidate to run in the race, the two prospects favored by House GOP leaders — state senators Guy Reschenthaler and Kim Ward — lost out to Saccone.
In the ensuing weeks after, the NRCC began discussions with Saccone and Larry Weitzner, the veteran TV ad maker the candidate seemed poised to hire. Many in the party regarded Weitzner, who’d been a lead strategist on Trump’s 2016 campaign, as a solid fit for Saccone and were under the impression that his selection was going to soon be a done deal.
But the committee was thrown for a loop when the campaign abruptly hired another operative, John Brabender. (A Saccone aide insisted that Weitzner had never been offered the job and had only been under consideration. Weitzner did not respond to requests for comment.)
Much of the party’s focus, however, was on helping the low-profile candidate fix his biggest shortcoming: the lack of a national fundraising base. During meetings, Stivers has asked his colleagues repeatedly to donate to Saccone. And in February, House GOP leaders hosted an event for Saccone in Washington that was aimed at getting lawmakers to open their checkbooks.
By the end of the contest, nearly 15 percent of the $916,000 Saccone had raised had come from House Republicans. Still, GOP officials, concerned about Saccone’s meager fundraising, have continued to plead. During a recent conference meeting, California Rep. Mimi Walters, a deputy NRCC chair, delivered a presentation in which she pointed to the fundraising gap between the two candidates and asked members for more money.
Short on campaign cash of his own, Saccone has relied almost entirely on the national party and outside groups to wage a media blitz on his behalf. Those involved in the effort have been horrified at the candidate’s few attempts at TV advertising, one of which featured him sitting at a kitchen table next to an American flag-emblazed coffee mug.
While Saccone has a compelling biography — like Lamb, he served in the military — the outside groups have found that introducing him to voters, rather than having Saccone do it himself, has proven challenging. The telegenic Lamb, meanwhile, has used his extensive campaign bank account to air a series of commercials highlighting his military service.
It’s been a costly endeavor for the Republicans. Through Tuesday, GOP groups had filled the advertising gap between the two candidates by spending nearly $7.5 million on TV ads, according to media buying figures. Because outside groups pay a higher rate to air commercials than candidates do, the party has been forced to dig deep into its coffers and expend resources that could otherwise be used to help endangered incumbents this fall.
Even more troubling for Republicans, because Pennsylvania’s congressional map is being redrawn, the special election district will likely no longer exist by the time of the November election. But with so much attention trained on the race, House GOP leaders determined they had little choice but to spend whatever was needed to pull Saccone over the finish line.
Some Republicans say it’s unfair to pin the blame solely on Saccone. They argue that his struggles reflect the broader challenges the party is facing as the midterms approach.
Particularly concerning, they say, is the fact that the millions of dollars Republicans have spent — much of it highlighting the GOP tax cuts and attempting to tie Lamb to Pelosi — has failed to move the needle.
Others note that Lamb has adroitly cast himself as a conservative figure, allowing him to win over the scores of blue collar Democrats in the area who’ve voted Republican in recent elections.
“This is a seat that is certainly more competitive than it ought to be,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican. “Democrats are very energized both in Pennsylvania and nationally and that’s really the issue.”
If they come up short on Tuesday, House GOP leaders say it will reinforce that candidates need to pull their weight in such a toxic environment for the party. The Republican conference will convene for a regularly scheduled meeting to be held the morning after the election. Win or lose, party officials expect a robust discussion on what candidates need to do this year to survive.
“In a tough political environment, candidate quality matters more than ever. In an anti-GOP year — which this is shaping up to be — the Republican candidates will need to run much stronger campaigns or be prepared for the national party to cut them loose,” said Ken Spain, who served as a senior aide at the NRCC during the GOP’s 2010 House takeover.
After Labor Day, Spain added, there would likely be dozens of seats in play. And the national party, he said, would be “unlikely to prop up weak candidates by doling out millions in political welfare like they did in this race.”