Republican Rick Saccone hasn’t even conceded yesterday’s PA-18 special election, but the finger-pointing has already begun in earnest among the GOP leadership in the state.
The race, which took place in the heavily conservative outskirts of Pittsburgh, quickly became a nationally watched referendum on President Donald Trump that ended in a near deadlock – an outcome the GOP hoped to avoid via millions of dollars in ad buys and a seemingly nonstop procession of heavy hitters stumping for candidate Rick Saccone, including President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, First Daughter Ivanka Trump and others. Instead, Saccone never gained the traction with voters, media and donors that Democrat Conor Lamb, a moderate with limited political experience running in the heart of “Trump Country,” was able to achieve.
Today, with a possible recount on the horizon, veteran GOP congressional consultant Charlie Gerow authored an op-ed in The Hill asserting that Saccone failed to transition “from running for the state legislature to running for Congress.”
“Saccone’s biggest challenge was his team’s inability to shift gears,” Gerow said in a phone interview. “Instead of having him dial for dollars, they had him out putting up his own yard signs and knocking on doors.”
Saccone had notably retained Bob Branstetter and Rob Brooks to helm his congressional bid. Their Harrisburg-based firm, Hallowell and Branstetter, had previously handled media work on his state house race but has fielded few recent congressional campaigns. They did not respond to a request for comment.
Gerow also said that Saccone’s difficulty in acclimating to the big-money world of congressional fundraising forced him to rely on outside Republican groups for TV ad buys. Rather than focusing on Saccone as a person – Gerow described him as intelligent and warm – super PACs and dark money groups poured cash into a scattershot deluge of sometimes bizarre attacks on Lamb.
One particularly odd commercial played off the candidate’s last name, depicting him as a sheep in a flock led by Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whom he had never met prior to his campaign.
“He had to rely on outside money to deliver his message, but it wasn’t his message. And it was a bad message,” Gerow said. “‘Nancy had a little lamb?’ It fell on its face. But Saccone had no control over that.”
Others assailed Saccone’s viability as a candidate from the beginning.
Mike Ward, a regional political operative and the son of state Sen. Kim Ward – who vied with Saccone in the Republican conferee process last November – laid the blame for the loss “at the feet of state and local party leaders” for selecting Saccone over his kin.
“My mother was the most qualified candidate. She was the most prepared and, as a female candidate in this climate, that’s an add-on, too,” he said. Ward added that his family, which hails from the Westmoreland County portion of the 18th District, would have drawn more support in crucial precincts.
He also reiterated complaints aired last November after a stalemate between Sen. Ward and state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler in their quest for the party’s nod in the special election led to Saccone’s selection.
GOP leaders of the four counties covered by PA-18 engaged in a complex, multi-round selection process that gives great sway to county chairs who in turn appoint conferees to vote for individual candidates. When the county chairs failed to coalesce around a majority candidate, Ward personally threw his support behind Saccone as a compromise. Today, in the wake of the election, he says that process is flawed.
“The conferee process was a fucking joke, if you’ll excuse my French,” Ward said. “Rick is a friend and I don’t want to beat up on him...but if you didn’t have four party bosses picking your candidate and the people were able to vote, he never would have run.”
One of those county chairs, Michael Korns, said Ward was only upset “because his mother lost” and that he had never backed any candidate in the conferee process.
Korns said that the real problem was the kind of Republican backbiting that preceded – and now follows – the special election.
“We have to stop cutting each other's throats all the time,” he said. “This is what we always do, instead of trying to fix our message.”
And yet the grumbling continues. Some say new Republican contenders – Reschenthaler, state Rep. Jason Ortitay or Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan – could make an eleventh-hour play to get on the ballot in the redrawn 14th Congressional District, where a weakened Saccone will run once again regardless of the outcome of the special election.
Others said state party chair Val DiGiorgio had supported Saccone because of past ties to consultants Branstetter and Brooks; still others believe DiGiorgio should be reproached for failing to intervene in the chaotic conferee process.
DiGiorgio denied any special connection to any one campaign and said that making the candidate selection less democratic was folly.
“I was elected as chairman with the understanding that I wouldn’t be putting my thumb on the scale for any candidate,” he said. “We saw a Democrat run as a conservative and that’s how you get to Conor Lamb...I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”