CORAOPOLIS, Penn. — Taking his first step onto the campaign trail in 2018, President Donald Trump said Thursday that he expects Republicans to "win a lot of elections" in November's midterms if the economy stays strong.
That will start, Trump hopes, with a March 13 special election in this conservative corner of southwestern Pennsylvania. Voters will head to the polls to replace former Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who resigned in October following a sex scandal.
The potential government shutdown crisis in Washington seemed far from Trump's mind as he took a victory lap on the tax plan he signed into law late last year and on the improving economy.
"If we keep it like this, we're going to win a lot of elections," Trump told about 400 workers at H&K Equipment Company. "It's the economy, stupid — did you ever hear that one?"
Trump technically came to the Pittsburgh area to discuss the tax policy, so taxpayers footed the bill for the travel expenses of the official White House event.
But Trump himself made the political subtext explicit in a tweet Thursday morning and in comments to reporters boosting the Republican House nominee, state Rep. Rick Saccone.
Saccone will "do very well," Trump told reporters before his remarks, promising, "I'll be back for Rick."
Thursday's trip, amidst the shutdown turmoil on Capitol Hill, is seen as a gamble for the president, who relishes the campaign trail but failed to pull the Republican candidate over the line in Alabama's Senate race last year.
Saccone greeted Trump at the airport and was in the audience during his remarks.
Workers cheered as the president called Saccone a "spectacular man," with a brief "Rick, Rick" chant breaking out.
Trump also used the event to make his first real sales pitch on taxes to an election-year crowd, and to once again recall his 2016 victory.
While reminding the crowd of his promise to put the "forgotten men and women" of America back to work, Trump recalled a nickname given to some of his supporters by his rival, Hillary Clinton. "Remember the 'deplorables'? We're all deplorables," he said to cheers before a short trip down memory lane.
"Who would've thought that was going to turn into a landslide? That was not a good phrase that she used. Oh, some things you'd like to have back," Trump said.
With Democrats gearing up for a potential electoral wave in November, after a string of tough losses and unusually tight victories over the past year, national Republicans are planning to spend millions on Saccone's campaign.
The southwestern Pennsylvania Congressional District would appear to be quintessential Trump country: white, blue-collar and industrial. Democrats technically outnumber Republicans, but the district consistently votes for the GOP.
Democrats nominated Conor Lamb, 33, a former Marine and federal prosecutor who has kept his distance from the liberal wing of the party.
Lamb has said he won't support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and on Thursday, he released his first TV ad, which features him firing an AR-15 rifle and notes he "still loves to shoot."