A Congressional District that no longer exists; two opponents who will never face each other again; a race that will have little or no direct influence on the balance of power in Congress – and yet much of the nation’s political establishment is watching it as if it were a presidential race.

We are talking, of course, about the unexpectedly close, high-stakes March 13 special election in the (old) Pennsylvania 18th between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Connor Lamb, which has received more national coverage than any congressional election in modern Pennsylvania history.

So what’s the fuss about a district, once represented by both John Heinz and Rick Santorum – and one that is scheduled to disappear by Pennsylvania’s May 15 primary, one that has 70,000 more Democrats than Republicans and one that has habitually voted Republican in recent years? Simply put, both Republicans and Democrats see this race as a referendum on President Trump and his policies – in a district Trump won by 20 points in 2016 and that the last GOP incumbent won unopposed. What’s at stake is not whether Democrats win control of the House, but whether this race presages a giant Democratic electoral wave that will sweep Republicans from power in November ‘s midterms.

At the outset, the race looked like a sure thing for Republicans. Trump’s victory margin in the district was preceded by Romney’s 17-point win in 2012. The previous Republican incumbent, Tim Murphy, had been elected to eight consecutive terms going back to 2002, the last two times without an opponent.

But expectations of a once comfortable GOP victory have morphed into a fierce electoral battle that many now see as too close to call. How did a “can’t lose” turn into a panicked “must win” for Republicans?

Two factors have led to the tightening of the race, and explain why an upset victory by Lamb is possible: the candidate himself, and the type of campaign he is running.

Beginning in the 1990s, voters in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania began to defect from national Democrats and their increasingly culturally liberal agenda. Consequently, if Democrats in 2018 had run their stock urban, liberal candidate, the race would have ended early. But instead, Democrats have a charismatic, youthful candidate with the perfect resume for the district. Some even liken him to the legendary western Pennsylvania politician John Heinz – sans Heinz’s huge fortune. Lamb is a former Marine and prosecutor whose positions on contemporary issues knit a near-perfect fit with voters. Lamb has presented himself as a moderate who is pro-life, pro-gun and reliably pro-union. He has been outspoken about beefing up the nation’s military while placing a major focus on the war against opioid addiction – something that has disproportionately afflicted southwestern Pennsylvania. Nor is he loath to talk about his patriotism and his Catholic religion.

Democrats have found a method to energize voters not seen in a generation: a genuine grassroots campaign featuring the candidate himself, ringing doorbells and posting yard signs, augmented by a small army of campaign volunteers that the campaign says have reached some 100,000 voters with old fashion door knocking. Conversely, his opponent, Rick Saccone, eschewing Lamb’s brand of retail politics has mostly run a more conventional campaign, doing organized staged events and relying on mass media.

Lamb has not ignored fundraising. Outside spending, however, has favored Saccone about 7 to 1 as GOP PACS have poured money into the race. But Lamb has managed to raise about five times Saccone’s own contributions, giving him about $500,000 more on hand in the race’s final days.

The subtext in the race is Trump. He may not on the ballot, but he is certainly on the minds of district voters. Moreover, there is no doubt that his brand is hurt badly if the outcome is close or if there is a Democrat victory. But Trump’s approval rating is still above water (51 percent) in the district, so it’s not so clear how much the race is actually a referendum on Trump versus voters choosing between two candidates, one (Lamb) highly impressive, while the other (Saccone) running a slow, stolid and unimaginative campaign.  

Indeed, Republicans are very nervous. Some have suggested Trump’s surprise announcement dramatically raising steel tariffs was linked to GOP worries about the race, and he is expected to visit the district a few days before the election.

The GOP faces the daunting prospect that the election will be close and might even be a loss in a district that should not have been in play. Either an outright loss or a close result will dim the party’s hopes for momentum going into the midterms. The GOP possible outcomes seem to be “bad” (close election) or “worse” (a loss).

It is never good when bad is the best one can do.

G. Terry Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael L. Young is a speaker, pollster, author, and was Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at terry.madonna@fandm.edu