President Donald Trump tried to energize his base at a free-wheeling rally on Saturday, talking up the plan for steel import tariffs, criticizing the media and Democrats and praising the idea of the death penalty for drug dealers ahead of a Pennsylvania special election.
Trump endorsed Republican Rick Saccone, a state representative locked in a tight race with Democrat Conor Lamb. It’s a must-win Congressional race for Republicans in a district the party has held for more than a decade, as they try to tamp down worries of a Democratic wave in November’s midterm elections.
“We need Republicans put in office,” Trump said during a rambling speech that ran for about 75 minutes in an airplane hangar at Pittsburgh International Airport, in Moon Township. “We have to get out, and we have to vote.”
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that Republicans “are 5-0 in recent Congressional races, a point which the Fake News media continuously fails to mention. I backed and campaigned for all the winners.” He didn’t mention the loss by Republican Roy Moore in a special election for Alabama’s open U.S. Senate seat in December after Trump endorsed and stumped for him.
At the rally, Trump touted his new tariffs on steel and aluminum, which are popular in the district near Pittsburgh in the heart of steel country. “We’re saving the steel, and a lot of steel mills are opening up,” the president said minutes into his speech. He later said the countries of the European Union had banded together “to screw the U.S. on trade,” and repeated a recent threat to slap tariffs on German luxury cars.
‘Low IQ Individual’
Trump also derided Representative Maxine Waters, a black Democrat from California who’s called for his impeachment, as a “a very low IQ individual.”
The president ran through recent events, from his decision to seek talks with North Korea to Friday’s strong monthly jobs number; suggested he’d saved the recent Winter Olympics from failure; and said his 2020 campaign slogan would be “Keep America Great.”
Besides going over the well-worn ground of his 2016 upset win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump also mused about the possibility of targeting convicted drug dealers with the death penalty. He praised Singapore and China for their “zero-tolerance” policies on drugs.
“I think it’s a discussion we have to start thinking about,” Trump said. “I don’t know if this country’s ready for it.”
The visit is a politically risky one for Trump, since Saccone has lost his early lead in the race as Democrats in the district, with an anti-Trump message, gained momentum.
A Republican loss would be embarrassing for the president and — less than three months after the stunning Democratic upset in Alabama — would be another sign of a weakened party heading into the midterm elections.
The heavily Republican district voted for Trump by 19 points in the 2016 presidential contest. But Saccone is in much weaker shape. Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former assistant U.S. attorney, led by 3 points in an Emerson College poll released last week. A Gravis Marketing poll that had Saccone up by 12 points in January found his edge was down to just 3 points by this week. Both results were within the margin of error.
The seat became vacant when Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican and abortion opponent, resigned in October after it was learned that he had encouraged a woman he was having an affair with to terminate her pregnancy.
Now a Toss-Up
Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political forecasting unit of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, shifted the race on Thursday from Republican-leaning to a toss-up, pointing to Lamb’s strong fundraising and the lack of impact of Republican advertising promoting tax cuts.
Still, Saccone, 60, a conservative Air Force veteran and former college professor, appeared hopeful that the association with Trump could pull him over the finish line. Other Trump administration officials including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta have also campaigned in the district.
Even if Saccone wins, a narrow margin of victory could show that Democrats are competitive in places they hadn’t been recently, forcing Republicans to spend time and money defending what had been safe congressional seats.