A disgraced ex-congressman and a Republican candidate despised by party leaders have been fighting a weeks-long, behind-the-scenes battle ahead of Tuesday’s primary for an open House seat in Western Pennsylvania.
Former Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned last October amid allegations that he asked his mistress to get an abortion, has been working quietly to sink Rick Saccone’s bid for Congress. Saccone, who became a national Republican scapegoat after losing to Democrat Conor Lamb in the March special election to replace Murphy, is now running for the GOP nomination in a newly drawn, heavily Republican district that includes much of Murphy’s old turf.
The fight has gotten personal: Murphy has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars from his old campaign account to an outside group supporting Saccone’s GOP primary opponent, state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler. Murphy also sent around a cropped video clip of Saccone that he believed would damage him.
At one point, Murphy accidentally forwarded that link to Saccone while trying to send it to someone else. The inadvertent exchange about opioids triggered a nasty back-and-forth that ended with Murphy calling Saccone “heartless,” while Saccone argued that his comments were taken out of context.
Murphy, reached by phone Monday afternoon, confirmed the authenticity of the text exchange and that the message was meant for someone else. But the former psychologist who championed opioid legislation said his opposition to Saccone was nothing personal.
Saccone lost the special election to replace him, Murphy argued — and he’ll have “trouble again” this fall, he said, despite the huge Republican advantage in the district.
“This was in a district President [Donald] Trump won by 20 points; I won by 28 … and was considered a huge Republican advantage,” Murphy said. “Despite $11 million from Republican groups, and two visits from the president, one by the vice president, the president’s Cabinet, members of Congress, Kellyanne Conway, the president’s son and daughter … Rick Saccone lost the election.”
Murphy added: “I believe there is a much stronger candidate who can win, and that’s state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler.”
The primary race between Saccone and Reschenthaler, a Navy veteran and former judge, has received little attention nationally. The seat is a GOP stronghold, and Republican leaders don’t appear to be worried about losing it no matter which candidate wins the primary.
Following the special election, Saccone was considered the favorite to win because of his name identification — even though Reschenthaler was eyeing the seat well before Saccone. Pennsylvania sources say the race has tightened considerably in recent weeks, with several calling it a “toss up."
Murphy has given at least $200,000 to Conservatives for PA, a group running ads helping Reschenthaler. The transfer was first reported by the Associated Press, and Murphy would not say if he’s given more since then or worked in other ways to finance or help Reschenthaler.
But the text argument, from April 18, shows that Murphy and Saccone have had personal run-ins. On that day, Murphy accidentally sent Saccone the cropped link of him appearing to argue that taxpayers should not be on the hook for helping victims of the opioid epidemic.
In the video, Saccone said some constituents “would say, ‘look it’s not [our] responsibility to take care of that … it’s the family’s responsibility … It’s not for the taxpayer themselves to step up.”
A comment by Saccone at the tail end, however, suggests he was framing his comments as a question, asking someone, “What would you say to that?”
Murphy blasted Saccone’s comment in the text, which was viewed by POLITICO: “Disturbing comments in light of the death rate in Westmoreland, [Pa.] from drug overdoses. Rick is basically saying, ‘I’m not going to help you! Get your grandparents to cure addiction!’”
Saccone texted back that the clip was “totally taken out of context in the larger hearing where I was actually empathizing with the opioid problem overlaid with our budget problem.”
“Total misrepresentation and despicable on the media’s part,” he said.
When Murphy realized he’d sent the text to Saccone accidentally, he decided “maybe it was meant to be” that he was supposed to confront the candidate, Murphy told POLITICO. So he continued his assault of Saccone’s comments.
“It’s not out of context. It’s disturbing,” Murphy wrote. “You said it. And incredibly insensitive. You can’t blame others for this one.”
Saccone replied again that the clip was “totally out of context.”
“What I said was we have so many pressing problems and not enough money to go around and this is what we agonize over as we prepare the budget,” Saccone wrote back.
That is when Murphy called him “heartless.”
“Do you go to funerals of people who died of an overdose and say ‘your son wasn’t a budget priority’? Do you tell them it’s not up to the taxpayer and his grandparents should have come up with the treatment?”
Saccone’s campaign did not return request for comment. But the source who passed POLITICO the Murphy-Saccone text feud noted that Saccone publicly rejected a campaign donation from Murphy during the special election earlier this year. Now Murphy is seeking revenge, the person suggested.
Murphy rejected that argument, however, noting that he “gladly helped [Saccone] raise money before.” He told POLITICO that even after Saccone returned his campaign contribution during the special election, Saccone “texted me a number of times asking me for help with donors, and I helped him.”
“He rejected the money before he asked me for help,” Murphy said, arguing that he had not held a grudge. “So publicly he said that, but privately in text messages he continued to ask me for help."