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The real reason Trump went to Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania's special election provided a friendly venue for Trump to test themes for a re-election bid that he launched on the day he was sworn into office

WASHINGTON — The official White House line is that President Donald Trump visited a factory in western Pennsylvania on Thursday to highlight how his signature tax cut is boosting the economy. And the president himself said he went to "give my total support" to the Republican candidate for a March 13 special election.

But make no mistake, Trump was there to get an early jump on 2020. And he tested out themes that will no doubt become more familiar as the next presidential election draws nearer.

He told workers at H&K Equipment just outside Pittsburgh that his policies have created "tremendous tax relief" for workers and businesses, credited his administration with the addition of 2.2 million jobs to the economy and reeled off statistics showing falling unemployment both overall and for African-Americans, Latinos and women in particular.

"It's the economy, stupid," Trump said, knowingly appropriating President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign slogan. "You ever hear that one?"

But for Trump, the good economic news has been countered by anemic polling numbers and a string of Democratic electoral victories in Republican-held seats.

The narrative of Democratic resurgence was punctuated when Doug Jones won an Alabama special Senate election last month and when Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, called Democrat Patty Schactner's victory in a solidly Republican state Senate district on Tuesday a "wake-up call" for the GOP.

Now, Trump badly needs a victory to show that he hasn't become poisonous for the GOP. And he's pulling out all the stops, including bringing daughter Ivanka to Pennsylvania to tell the crowd the tax cut will be a "big win" for everyone in the country.

Image: President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump looks back at plant worker Ken Wilson as he speaks at H and K Equipment Company during a visit to promote his tax and economic plan on Jan. 18, 2018, in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania.Evan Vucci / AP

On a political level, Pennsylvania's 18th District — which stretches from the suburbs south of Pittsburgh to the state's southwestern corner — provided a friendly venue for Trump to try out the early version of a stump speech. He won the district by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election, and former Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., who retired last year amid allegations of marital infidelity, never had a close race.

Former Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat who represented a neighboring district with similar politics and demographics, said Trump will be a net-positive for the Republican nominee in the special election, state Rep. Rick Saccone.

"He is popular there among the GOP base, which is falling behind Democrats on the enthusiasm scale," Altmire said. "The national Democratic brand is toxic in this type of district, so there are few top surrogates Democrats could bring in that would have similar impact."

All of that means that it should be a low-risk gamble for Trump to throw his weight behind Saccone, and try to use a victory as evidence that his own brand and that of the GOP are making a comeback before the midterm elections in November.

He needs to energize Republicans for the midterms and bolster the narrative that he can hold Midwestern industrial states, including Pennsylvania, that were the key to his 2016 election.

Mike DuHaime, a former political director for the Republican National Committee, told NBC News that Trump's trip offered an opportunity to tie together the tax cuts, the upcoming special election and his own political fortunes.

"It can be all of the above," DuHaime said. "If workers in western Pennsylvania benefit from tax reform, that's good for the GOP candidate now, and good for the president long-term."

Democrats, though, see the election as an opportunity to demonstrate just how unpopular Trump has become.

They are cautiously optimistic that their candidate, former U.S. attorney and Marine Corps veteran Conor Lamb, can demonstrate yet again that their party is energized and Republicans are reeling. Jones' victory in Alabama, coupled with a string of wins in Republican-held state legislative districts, has them dreaming of taking control of the House and possibly even the Senate in November's midterm elections.

Despite the solidly Republican lean of the district, Altmire said it will be "a major setback" for Democrats if Lamb loses.

"It is definitely winnable for the right kind of Democrat, especially in this historic wave climate running against a weak and unabashedly pro-Trump candidate," Altmire said. "While they have worked hard to lower the bar of expectations, there is simply no excuse for Democrats if they are unsuccessful in this race."

For similar reasons, DuHaime said Trump's presence is a big deal for the GOP.

"Much is riding on this race, at least politically as a harbinger of the midterm elections later this year," he said. "So it is very smart for the White House to send the president to this district, where his popularity there should help."

Trump connected the dots between his economic message, the special election and his own fortunes.

"If we keep it like this," he said, referring to the good economic data, "we're going to win a lot of elections."