In Pennsylvania special election, candidates clash over how to combat opioid crisis

WASHINGTON — Last year, when the mother of an opioid addict testified before Pennsylvania lawmakers, Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone said he wanted to help. But he also said the government could only do so much, since it must make tough budgeting decisions.

"People are in my office all day long, I'm sure it's the same with all my colleagues here, you know, 'we need more funding, we need more funding,'" Saccone said at a field hearing last March.

"We don't have any more funding, okay? We're going to try to cut the budget. So, where do I take it from?" he asked the woman, who sat quietly a few feet away. "Do I take it from the autistic children?"

"You don't have to answer that right now, but just think about it," he added.

Saccone is now running for Congress in a special election next week that may provide insight into how voters in one of the nation's hardest-hit regions view the opioid epidemic. The race, in Pennsylvania's 18th District, is seen as a bellwether ahead of November's midterm elections, when the opioid crisis is expected to come up in important races.

Saccone's comments — video of which was shared by the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge — show how conservatives' typical emphasis on small government and tough-on-crime policies can be an uncomfortable fit for a drug epidemic in their own backyard.

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Randy Bryce (D)

Bryce made waves earlier this year when he announced he would run against House Speaker Paul Ryan in the 2018 midterm elections. Bryce, a Democrat, is a U.S. Army veteran, cancer survivor and union ironworker.

Rep. Scott Taylor, (R-VA)

A former Navy SEAL, Taylor has represented Virginia's 2nd District since he was elected in 2016. He has branded himself as a Republican lawmaker who is unafraid to speak out against President Trump and members of his own party -- recently calling out Roy Moore for allegations of sexual misconduct.

Rep. Seth Moulton, (D-MA)

39-year-old Seth Moulton has increasingly emerged as a prominent House member and one to watch within the Democratic party. He served four tours of duty in Iraq and notably serves as the. Recently, he has advocated for "a new generation" of Democratic leadership.

Rep. Chris Collins, (R-NY)

Collins was elected to represent New York's 27th district on Capitol Hill in 2012, and has since positioned himself as a vocal right-wing defender within the Republican party. He also came out as one of President Trump's most vocal supporters leading up to an after the 2016 election.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.)

Krishnamoorthi was elected in 2016 -- making him one of the more freshman lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Still, the former lawyer with a past of aiding the Obama administration has played an integral role this year in congressional investigations into the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russia. As a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he has taken many opportunities to speak critically of the clearance aides like Jared Kushner have -- and has firmly positioned himself as a staunch opponent of GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK)

As one of 21 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate, Murkowski has positioned herself as a more moderate leader within the Republican party. Murkowski refused to toe the party line on an attempted Obamacare repeal earlier this year, and has since raised skepticism over specific elements of the GOP tax bill and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Rep. Charlie Crist, (D-Fla.)

Crist is one of the more interesting players currently positioned in the political landscape. Once a Republican, Crist served as both attorney general and governor of Florida -- but then switched to a member of the Independent and eventually Democratic party. In his current House role representing Florida's 13th congressional district, Crist has emerged as a Democrat unafraid to take a middle-ground approach in his policy stances.

Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-AR)

As the youngest U.S. senator, Cotton's political future currently looks very bright. As one of the few Capitol Hill lawmakers that has yet to have a public feud -- on Twitter or otherwise -- with President Trump, Cotton was recently on the shortlist to replace Mike Pompeo as CIA director if Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV)

Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

Governor-elect Ralph Northam (D-VA)

Northam was elected governor of Virginia in the series of "anti-Trump" Election Day victories Democrats celebrated in Nov. 2017. Northam's victory over Ed Gillespie signaled a potential shift in the oft-fraught over Virginia battleground state -- and Northam's gubernatorial tenure will be one to eye in the context of midterms and the 2020 presidential election.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D, NY)

Many who watch politics closely have noted Gillibrand as one to watch since she was appointed to Hillary Clinton's former Senate seat in 2009, and then elected in 2012. Early in her Senate career, Gillibrand used her position as a member of the Committee on Armed Services to chalk up a major legislative win by championing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Gillibrand has also recently spoken out against sexual harassment allegations stemming from both Democratic and Republican offices -- calling on both Sen. Al Franken and President Trump to resign.

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At another field hearing — a Congressional hearing held outside Washington — last February, Saccone said that while government has a role to play, "We can't legislate or treat our way out of this problem; it's much bigger than that."

"I think it's time for us to admit that we're fighting a culture that promotes rebelliousness and vulgarity, disrespect, selfishness," he said. "We have to be willing to accept that we need to take back our youth and restore the traditional values that we all grew up with around here, because they've all deteriorated."

Saccone's Democratic opponent, Conor Lamb, meanwhile, has said government needs to play a leading role in addressing the crisis, listing it first on the part of his website that outlines his priorities.

"There is a huge role for the government to play here," Lamb said at the candidates' final debate Saturday night. "Only the government can build those [treatment] facilities and fill them with beds and fill them with qualified staff. And only the government can have the health insurance programs to support these people."

Saccone, when pressed on the issue Saturday, said he did support taxpayer-funded programs, but said the "whole society has to be involved," from faith leaders to police officers to educators and parents.

"The left's solution to everything is a big government solution," he said.

While the opioid epidemic has simmered in other recent elections, it's become a front burner issue in this Western Pennsylvania election scheduled for March 13, which was triggered when former congressman Tim Murphy resigned last year after admitting to an affair.

"Everybody knows somebody who has been affected by this," said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist who lives in the district. "There are probably not many families that have not been touched by this epidemic."

Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District includes both Pittsburgh suburbs and more rural areas, such as Washington County, which once saw 17 overdoses in a single night, despite having a small population of just over 200,000.

A spokesman for Saccone said he has a strong record of fighting the opioid epidemic and that he helped pass important legislation in the state House to prevent drug addiction and promote access to health care treatment.

"His efforts to prevent addiction have already produced tangible results," the spokesman, Patrick McCann, said in a statement. "Since the legislation passed, there has been a twelve percent drop in opioid prescriptions in the state of Pennsylvania. As a leader on the issue in the State House, Rick will bring that experience to Congress."

Republicans are also running a tough ad accusing Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, of being soft on crime for cutting a plea bargain with a drug kingpin than involved dropping 269 charges.

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Alabama

Donald Trump: 1,318,255 votes

Hillary Clinton: 729,547 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Alaska

Donald Trump: 163,387 votes

Hillary Clinton: 116,454 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Arkansas

Donald Trump: 684,872 votes

Hillary Clinton: 380,494 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Arizona

Donald Trump: 1,252,401 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,161,167 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Connecticut

Donald Trump: 673,315 votes

Hillary Clinton: 897,572 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

California

Donald Trump: 4,483,810 votes

Hillary Clinton: 8,753,788 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Alaska

Donald Trump: 163,387 votes

Hillary Clinton: 116,454 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Colorado

Donald Trump: 1,202,484 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,338,870 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Delaware

Donald Trump: 185,127 votes

Hillary Clinton: 235,603 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Florida

Donald Trump: 4,617,886 votes

Hillary Clinton: 4,504,975 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Georgia

Donald Trump: 2,089,104 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,877,963 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Hawaii

Donald Trump: 128,847 votes

Hillary Clinton: 266,891 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Iowa

Donald Trump: 800,983 votes

Hillary Clinton: 653,669 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Illinois

Donald Trump: 2,146,015 votes

Hillary Clinton: 3,090,729 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Idaho

Donald Trump: 409,055 votes

Hillary Clinton: 189,765 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Indiana

Donald Trump: 1,557,286 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,033,126 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Kansas

Donald Trump: 671,018 votes

Hillary Clinton: 427,005 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Kentucky

Donald Trump: 1,202,971 votes

Hillary Clinton: 628,854 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Louisiana

Donald Trump: 1,178,638 votes

Hillary Clinton: 780,154 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Maine

Donald Trump: 335,543 votes

Hillary Clinton: 357,735 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Massachusetts

Donald Trump: 1,090,893 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,995,196 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Michigan

Donald Trump: 2,279,543 votes

Hillary Clinton: 2,268,839 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Minnesota

Donald Trump: 1,323,232 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,367,825 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Mississippi

Donald Trump: 700,714 votes

Hillary Clinton: 485,131 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Missouri

Donald Trump: 1,594,511 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,071,068 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Montana

Donald Trump: 279,240 votes

Hillary Clinton: 177,709 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Nebraska

Donald Trump: 495,961 votes

Hillary Clinton: 284,494 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Nevada

Donald Trump: 512,058 votes

Hillary Clinton: 539,260 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

New Hampshire

Donald Trump: 345,790 votes

Hillary Clinton: 348,526 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

New Jersey

Donald Trump: 1,601,933 votes

Hillary Clinton: 2,148,278 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

New Mexico

Donald Trump: 319,667 votes

Hillary Clinton: 385,234 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

New York

Donald Trump: 2,819,534 votes

Hillary Clinton: 4,556,124 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

North Dakota

Donald Trump: 216,794 votes

Hillary Clinton: 93,758 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Ohio

Donald Trump: 2,841,005 votes

Hillary Clinton: 2,394,164 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Oklahoma

Donald Trump: 949,136 votes

Hillary Clinton: 420,375 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Oregon

Donald Trump: 782,403 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,002,106 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Pennsylvania

Donald Trump: 2,970,733 votes

Hillary Clinton: 2,926,441 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Rhode Island

Donald Trump: 180,543 votes

Hillary Clinton: 252,525 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

South Carolina

Donald Trump: 1,155,389 votes

Hillary Clinton: 855,373 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

South Dakota

Donald Trump: 227,721 votes

Hillary Clinton: 117,458 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Tennessee

Donald Trump: 1,522,925 votes

Hillary Clinton: 870,695 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Texas

Donald Trump: 4,685,047 votes

Hillary Clinton: 3,877,865 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Utah

Donald Trump: 515,231 votes

Hillary Clinton: 310,676 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Vermont

Donald Trump: 95,259 votes

Hillary Clinton: 178,573 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Virginia

Donald Trump: 1,769,443 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,981,473 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Washington

Donald Trump: 1,221,747 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,742,718 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

West Virginia

Donald Trump: 489,371 votes

Hillary Clinton: 188,794 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Wisconsin

Donald Trump: 1,405,284 votes

Hillary Clinton: 1,382,536 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

Wyoming

Donald Trump: 174,419 votes

Hillary Clinton: 55,973 votes

Data courtesy of the New York Times

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Lamb has blasted the ad, noting the dealer was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and his campaign pointed to a FactCheck.org article that called the commercial "flimsy and misleading."

Meanwhile, Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for American Bridge, said Saccone's comments on the opioid epidemic show he doesn't understand the issue and won't push for necessary help from Washington.

"Rick Saccone's dangerously ignorant and out of touch approach to the opioid crisis proves he cannot be the leader that suffering families need," he said.

Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant in Pennsylvania, said Lamb and Saccone's divisions are instructive.

"I'd wager that there's a sizable number of people who would say both approaches are reasonable and worthwhile," Nicholas said. "It does demonstrate the smaller government vs. larger government schism between the two candidates and that could be informational to undecided voters."

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