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Behind the battle for a suburban Pittsburgh House district with national implications

MT. LEBANON, Pa. — One of the most hotly contested races of the 2022 midterms is taking place in the Pittsburgh suburbs and it could test how well, or poorly, each party fares in Tuesday’s election.

In Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, Democrat Chris Deluzio is taking on Republican Jeremy Shaffer in the only toss-up contest for an open congressional seat in the six swing states that President Joe Biden won in 2020, according to The Cook Political Report, the nonpartisan analyst of elections. The race is a must-win for Democrats to have any hope of retaining control of the House.

This district, which Biden won by about 6 points in 2020, has seen the second-most advertising spend of any race in The Keystone State, according to AdImpact tracking. It stretches from wealthier suburbs south of Pittsburgh through the western part of Allegheny County, and encompasses the entirety of Beaver County, a swing, working-class county to Pittsburgh’s northwest.

But with Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., the district’s sitting congressman, making a failed bid for Senate, the party lost its advantage of incumbency — and the race has now become a coin-flip.

“In a year that generally benefits Republicans, this is an opportunity for them,” Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, which conducts the Morning Call survey in Pennsylvania, told NBC News. “And I think you’ve seen the race kind of shape up that way. It’s one where, on the whole, it might edge Democratic looking at the district but with no incumbent, a pretty well-funded Republican and a good cycle. This is very competitive.”

Losing Lamb “takes off a big advantage Democrats would have otherwise had in a fairly popular incumbent being able to go back into the district,” Borick said.

The race will also indicate how Democrats are faring with working-class suburbanites and whether the party can keep the edge it held in the suburbs from Biden’s first run.

Deluzio, a former Navy officer who served in Iraq and the cyber policy director at the University of Pittsburgh, is running on a more populist economic message — boost American manufacturing and lessen reliance on China, pass pro-union laws in Congress, fight inflation by targeting price gouging — tying his opponent, an engineer, corporate executive and former local township commissioner, to the outsourcing of local jobs. 

He’s also put the future of democracy front and center in his campaign, blasting Shaffer as a “coward” for not denouncing efforts within his party to delegitimize elections as well as abortion rights. And he’s touted the endorsements of a number of local unions backing his effort.

“If they have their way, they’re going to keep gouging us,” Deluzio said of Republicans at a rally last week for Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor, in the city of Beaver. “They’re going to keep having lousy trade deals that are ripping us off. They’re going to keep shipping our jobs all over the planet. Beyond killing the union way of life, they’re attacking our reproductive freedom. They’re attacking our democracy.”

Shaffer, meanwhile, has focused his campaigned message on fighting crime and inflation while calling for bipartisanship, congressional term-limits, an end to gerrymandering and campaign-finance reform, which Deluzio has also campaigned on. Shaffer, who said he’d have supported the bipartisan infrastructure deal, has criticized Deluzio as a candidate too far left for the district and has promoted the endorsements of local police organizations.

“I am deeply, deeply concerned with the direction of our country,” Shaffer said at a rally alongside Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz last week. “This country can not afford two more years of Democratic one-party rule. And Republicans, Democrats, independents, we are all in the boat together right now. We’re all Americans.

“The slogan from my campaign is ‘Better Together,’” he said, a apparent spinoff of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together.” “We can do it.”

Republican Congressional candidate Jeremy Shaffer speaks in Pittsburgh on Oct. 19, 2022.Gene J. Puskar / AP file

The candidates have only faced off in one debate. Plans for a second debate as well as a forum in the final week of the campaign were canceled after Shaffer said he contracted an illness.

Speaking with NBC News from his campaign office last week, Deluzio said voters he’s spoken to in the district want a lawmaker who will “fight to bring stuff back home to manufacture more” and someone who has a military background, like himself.

“And these threats to our democracy and freedom, I keep hearing from people, Democrat, independent, Republican, they can’t stand it,” he said. “They want our government to be normal and functional.”

“There are plenty of people in my district who are Republicans who do not want that anti-democratic force to gain power,” he added. “But they have, frankly, cowards running like the guy I’m running against who won’t confront them, who doesn’t have the spine to say, ‘This is anti-democratic and is a threat.’ And look, I say that as someone not just running for office, but who swore an oath to defend this Constitution and was willing to risk my life for this government. It makes me mad.”

In an interview ahead of the rally with Oz rally in suburban Pittsburgh, Shaffer said Deluzio was “desperate” because his campaign has gained some momentum in the final weeks.

“People have really started tuning in in the last few weeks,” he said. “And the people who are starting to tune in here are breaking our way. Crime has especially risen as an issue of concern and inflation has risen as an issue of concern. And some of the other distractions have really fallen away. People are looking at their primary issues and making their decisions here in the final days.”

Lamb said he sees inflation and crime playing out as major issues in the district, just as they are elsewhere, adding that Deluzio and Democrats have been trying to convince voters that Republicans have not presented a viable solution to those issues.

“They highlight the importance of those issues, but they’re not really offering, from what I can see, any coherent plan to address that,” Lamb told NBC News ahead of the Shapiro rally in Beaver. “Whereas, we have been trying to do a lot of things about inflation that I think have made inflation not as bad in this country as it is in other parts of the world.”

He added, “With a week to go we still have a lot of room to convince people.”

Former Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., who lost the district in a matchup against Lamb in 2018 after serving three terms, praised Shaffer as having “really been hustling” through the district and meeting with voters.

As for why the area has become such a significant swing district, Rothfus cited its economic and geographic importance.

“It’s the crossroads of a huge section of the country, right between the Midwest and the Northeast,” he said. “It’s a good place for people to focus on.”

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