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U.S. Politics

The stakes could not be higher with midterm elections looming in November

Lifelong Democrats Eugene and Kathy Barno, 71 and 69, voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but they are unsure how they will vote in Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania, which is shaping up as a test of Trump voters’ loyalty to the GOP.

Eugene Barno was once among the Democratic Party's base. A coal miner for 45 years in southwestern Pennsylvania, his work stoked the steel mills that formed the backbone of the area's economy and his vote gave the left power in the rugged, blue-collar hill country that stretches south of Pittsburgh.

That changed in 2016, when Mr. Barno was impressed by Donald Trump's campaign on traditional working-class themes. Helping the coal industry and slapping tariffs on foreign imports to protect American manufacturers were at the centre of the bombastic billionaire's populist appeal.

"For a long time, it seemed the Democrats were for the working man," Mr. Barno, 71, said. "This time, it seemed Trump was more for us than the Democrats."

"Coal and steel: Our area depends on these for survival," adds his wife, Kathy Barno, 69, a homemaker.

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But on Sunday, the couple found themselves at a rally for Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate in a special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, in an outbuilding on the Greene County Fairgrounds in Waynesburg. They wanted to hear what he had to say as they weighed how to vote on Tuesday. Their support for Mr. Trump had not, they said, automatically translated into backing the Republicans.

The Barnos were the key demographic that handed Mr. Trump his shock presidential victory, delivering swing states in the country's manufacturing belt. Now, retaining them is key to the President's political survival – and winning them over is a major imperative for a Democratic Party trying to come back from its stinging loss.

Republican Rick Saccone speaks during a campaign rally with President Donald Trump on Saturday.

The stakes could not be higher. With midterm elections looming in November, the Republicans must retain control of Congress to foreclose the possibility of impeachment against the President. Both sides are throwing everything they have at Tuesday's election – a statistical dead heat in a district that backed Mr. Trump by 18 points in 2016.

The district, which stretches from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the West Virginia and Ohio borders, became vacant last year after incumbent pro-life GOPer Tim Murphy resigned after he was caught encouraging a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to have an abortion.

Even the President's opponents here acknowledge that his economic policies are winners.

Rita Yantko, a Democratic organizer in Fayette County, says her local party lost 5,000 registered voters to the GOP in 2016. She is in favour of the tariffs on steel and aluminum Mr. Trump rolled out last week.

"It's a good thing – I don't have a problem with that," she said. "I'd love to see some jobs."

But she hopes that voters have become disenchanted enough with Mr. Trump's drama and scandal-plagued White House to return to the Democratic fold this time around.

It also helps that the Democrats have nominated a candidate who is culturally conservative, but leans left economically.

Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania’s 18th district, speaks at a campaign rally with United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) on Sunday.

A lanky 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor, Mr. Lamb identifies as pro-life and campaigns as a tough-on-crime supporter of gun rights, but also backs both unions and tariffs, and promises to protect education and other social programs from Republican cuts. And he has publicly broken with Nancy Pelosi, the liberal Californian who leads the Democratic House caucus.

"I like the fact that he's pretty non-partisan – he doesn't buy into the party line," said Lars Lange, a 53-year-old former miner turned lawyer, as he stood on the sidelines of Mr. Lamb's rally.

Pacing the front of the hall in shirt sleeves, a hand-held microphone giving him the mien of an evangelical preacher, United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts brought the crowd to its feet with his thumbnail sketch of the candidate.

"He's a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, social-security-believing, health-care-creating and sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat," Mr. Roberts shouted in his West Virginian drawl.

Mr. Lamb has also been careful about criticizing Mr. Trump. And it's no wonder: At a Saturday evening rally, the President packed an airplane hangar at the Pittsburgh airport, drawing wild cheers as he crowed about his plans to freeze-out foreign goods.

"Your steel is coming back, it's all coming back," he declared. "The great American comeback continues full-speed ahead."

President Donald Trump speaks at the Make America Great Again rally Saturday.

Claire Fox, a 56-year-old school guard, thinks of her son, a welder, when she hears the President's promises to pump up blue-collar employment.

"The tariffs are good, to bring jobs back here," she said as she stood near the back of the rally with a group of friends. "Not everyone's a college kid."

The Republicans have also nominated a colourful candidate: Rick Saccone, a populist right-wing state legislator who likes to say he was "Trump before Trump was Trump." In a previous life, he was also a counterintelligence officer and lived in North Korea for a year monitoring the failed Clinton-era deal to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for help building power plants.

But whether the enthusiasm for the President still evidenced here will help Mr. Saccone – or any other Republican come November – is an open question.

Daniel and Elke Miller, who spent their careers at coal and aluminum companies, voted for Mr. Trump and still like him: They give the President's tariff plan high marks (although Mr. Miller is quick to add that he'd rather the United States spare its allies, such as Germany and Canada, from the trade attack.)

"Hillary made me very nervous," Ms. Miller said. "She wanted to close all the coal plants."

But they are both voting for Mr. Lamb on Tuesday.

"He supports all the things I'm for," Mr. Miller, 73, said as he stood in the hall after Mr. Lamb's rally. "He's pro-union and he's pro-education."