MT. LEBANON, Pa. — For the next three weeks, he's the most important candidate for anything in American politics.
While pundits widely focus on his Democratic rival Conor Lamb (understandably, as Lamb is young and progressive, has a military background and comes from a pedigree political family), Rep. Rick Saccone may just be the one to watch.
Why? Because everything that is at stake for both political parties rests on his shoulders.
If Lamb wins, then every Democrat running in a swing district across the country will try to adapt the Lamb strategy: Avoid the press; take no strong stands on any issue; and just focus on saying over and over again that, as a candidate, you support new leadership on both sides of the aisle.
If Lamb loses, it's back to the #Resistance.
In this district that Trump won by 20 points, a Lamb victory would confirm the prediction that the world has shifted away from both President Trump and the Republican Party.
And if we are being completely honest, even if Saccone wins, the world shifting away from Trump and Republicans will still be the story.
Lamb gets a lot of attention for being a former U.S. Marine captain — rightly so — not just for his service to his country but because it is a candidate background the Democrats have shied away from since 2006.
Saccone is a U.S. Air Force veteran who served as a counterintelligence and special agent for over a decade and then served as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. And during the George W. Bush administration, he held the distinction of having served as a diplomat to North Korea from 2000 to 2001 and been the only U.S. citizen living in Pyongyang at the time.
Saccone went back to school, completed his Ph.D. in international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and then became a professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
He is unapologetically anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment and not afraid of tough races; he won both of his state House seats by a couple hundred votes in a district that had been held by a Democrat for over 20 years and been drawn to favor Democrats.
"I approach every race as the underdog," he says. "Remember, my first election, I was in a 76 percent Democrat district gerrymandered to keep a Democrat in power for 26 years. It worked well. My wife and I knocked on 18,000 doors. We got our message out in front of people, and we won that race."
Saccone recalls 2012, "an Obama reelection year where 8,000 additional voters were going to come out in that same 76 percent Democrat district, meaning 76 percent of those were likely to be Democrats, and there was even less chance that we would win, but we won again."
He says: "We did it by getting out. Getting our message to the people. The more people that we can get in front of and tell our message to, the better chance we have of winning."
He is also completely comfortable and unapologetic about how he has worked across the aisle with Democrats in the state House: "If I can do it in North Korea, I should be able to do it anywhere."
"Most of my bills have passed either unanimously or nearly unanimously, which says I can actually reach across the aisle and do these things," he says. "My most recent bill (to protect against online sexual predators) passed unanimously. Signed into law by a liberal governor, endorsed by a liberal Democrat attorney general. So, my ideas have been voted on by people on both sides of the aisle."
Saccone said his biggest challenge in winning the race is making sure everyone knows to get out and vote.
He's disappointed that little attention has been paid to his background in the stories about his public service. He says: "They rarely say that I'm a career military officer, 18 years in the service. They don't say I have a PhD in international relations, that I've been an international diplomat. That I've been to North Korea. That I have experience in counterterrorism and counterintelligence. That I've written nine books. That I've been to 75 countries and been an international businessman and that I have basically 40 years of experience, life experience in five areas: diplomacy, government, the military, business, and academia. That's something you can't replicate."
Either way, both camps predict a close race — and a Monmouth University poll released last Thursday showed Saccone with a 3-point lead. The poll used "a turnout model similar to voting patterns seen in other special elections over the past year," according to pollster Patrick Murray.
Even with that lead, Saccone feels like the underdog, which is how he likes it.