HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pittsburgh’s suburbs, perhaps the most politically poked and prodded territory in Pennsylvania recently, are under the microscope again in a state legislative election that some see as an early test of President Donald Trump’s strength in a critical battleground ahead of 2020.
The open state Senate seat is in a territory historically influenced by Republican enclaves outside the Steel City but also viewed as increasingly friendly to Democrats, even as the area’s more rural coal regions have swung to Republicans.
Tuesday’s special election pits Republican D. Raja against Democrat Pam Iovino for a seat largely controlled by Republicans the past 50 years.
Raja is the chairman and chief executive of an information technology consulting firm he helped start after he immigrated from India. Iovino is a Navy veteran who served as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The district is politically divided: Democrats have a registration edge, even though Trump won it in 2016 when he became the first Republican since 1988 to capture Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes.
To a great extent, the campaign has focused on the usual grist of Pennsylvania’s elections: the state’s booming natural gas industry, abortion rights, gun rights, jobs and the minimum wage.
Then there’s the TV attack ad by Raja that tries to link Iovino to the Green New Deal, a wide-ranging plan to combat climate change supported by several Democratic members of Congress.
The ad says Iovino has “teamed up with extremists who want to stop our growth with billions in new energy taxes” and fans out photos of prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In the campaign’s final hours Monday, the state Republican Party issued a robocall from Donald Trump Jr., urging listeners to vote for Raja and saying “the Make America Great Again agenda cannot afford to have Pam Iovino win this race and implement her liberal and extreme agenda in Pennsylvania.”
Republican strategists hope to see extra energy from their party’s base amid a backlash to the Green New Deal and what a Raja campaign strategist called special counsel Robert Mueller’s “overreach.”
“The things that motivate Republicans tend to be national issues,” said Ray Zaborney, the strategist.
Iovino’s campaign said she has no position on the Green New Deal and has not spoken in support of it, and an Iovino campaign strategist said Republicans have run a “fact-free” campaign.
“They’re trying to nationalize Pam because there is no dirt on her,” said the strategist, David Marshall.
In recent days, both state parties sent mailers linking Raja to Trump. The Democrats’ mailer quotes Raja’s praise of Trump’s election victory and tax law, and says: “Pennsylvania can’t afford a state senator who thinks that Donald Trump is ‘a great first step.'”
Alternately, the Republican mailer shows a photo of a smiling Trump and the message, “a vote for Raja is a vote for President Trump’s agenda.”
Even though it could be a bellwether, the race itself has attracted little media coverage or campaign spending from outside the state. An Iovino victory will still leave Republicans with what’s expected to be a six-seat state Senate majority in this session and strategists on both sides expect turnout to be around 20 percent, or about 42,000 voters.
Still, it is territory successfully cultivated last year by Democrat Conor Lamb in his two victories in two different Republican-held congressional districts: one in a special election and one in the general election after the state’s high court redrew U.S. House district boundaries.
Until the recent fliers, Trump had figured little into the special election attacks and counterattacks. The president won the district by 6 percentage points in 2016.
However, his margin of victory pales next to the double-digit percentage point margins of victory there in 2018 by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, as well as by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
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