District 18 congressional race could see upset by Democrats

Pennsylvania's special election could be barometer for November's mid-terms

MOUNT LEBANON, PENNSYLVANIA In a district US President Donald Trump swept in 2016, the unfathomable has become the possible: a Democrat could win today's special election.

And that has sparked fears among Republicans about their ability to keep control of Congress in November's mid-term elections.

With anti-Trump fervour simmering, voters will head to the polls in the closely watched 18th congressional district, the working-class corner of south-west Pennsylvania.

The district - whose previous congressman, Republican Tim Murphy, resigned after a personal scandal - is under the microscope. The battle between culturally conservative Trump-backed state representative Rick Saccone, 60, and Democratic newcomer Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former prosecutor and US Marine lawyer has now taken on national implications.

Political science professor at Clarion University Kevan Yenerall said: "If the Democrats are able to come close, or win this, it will send shock waves across the political world.

"It will mean the Democrats will likely pick up in fund-raising and recruitment, and give them momentum going into the mid-term elections."

Republicans control both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Analysts said if White House chaos continues and Democratic field action surges, Democrats have a chance of flipping both chambers in November.

Such is the significance of this race that Mr Trump himself stumped on Saturday for Mr Saccone in District 18.

A president's endorsement can be a valuable asset for a congressional candidate.

But Mr Lamb's surprisingperformance - polls show him tied or within the margin of error against Mr Saccone - has boiled down to Mr Trump's polarising presidency, said Democratic Congressman Michael Doyle.

Mr Doyle said: "I think what is happening is, there is some buyer's remorse going on."

But after a contentious - even toxic - first year, the Trump political brand is being tested.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national group that works to elect Democrats to the House, on Sunday said: "Make no mistake: This race is a referendum on Trump's presidency."

Republicans pumped millions of outside dollars into the race, overwhelming Democrats by seven to one, Dr Yenerall said.

But Mr Lamb's local campaign has pulled in more money than Mr Saccone's, and is riding a tide of grassroots enthusiasm that has brought Mr Lamb within striking distance of his more experienced opponent.

Mr Lamb has resonated with voters, including some centrist Republicans.

The new face of a blue-collar family with political roots, Mr Lamb is socially conservative and economically moderate, and backs Mr Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.

At a recent rally at the United Steelworkers union, which has endorsed Mr Lamb, he was restrained and soft-spoken.

"In a time when they are trying to divide us, when our country is so divided already, we are united in this district for the first time in a long time," Mr Lamb told the steelworkers.

Mr Saccone sounded more fervent as he stood alongside Mr Trump at their rally.

"This is the time to close the deal," he said. "We have got two days left." - AFP