Conor Lamb’s Rise in Pennsylvania Scares Republicans—and Democrats

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If Conor Lamb’s apparent win in the heart of Trump country is any indication, the Democratic Party will have to widen its ideological tent to accommodate a diverse slate of candidates running in what’s shaping up as a Democratic wave in November.
Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor, clung to a 627-vote lead on March 14, the day after a special congressional election in southwestern Pennsylvania.
If seated, he’ll be among the most conservative Democrats in the House.
After spending much of the past decade focusing on progressive social issues, Democrats are throwing out ideological purity tests and fielding moderate and conservative candidates in places where Trump ran strong in 2016.
It’s working: Winners include Senator Doug Jones in Alabama and Governor Ralph Northam in Virginia.
Lamb’s strong performance in a district Trump won by almost 20 percentage points is a shock to the GOP, but it’s also a challenge to Democrats, who may have an unruly majority if they win back the House.
Lamb would likely join the Blue Dog caucus of 18 moderate and conservative House Democrats.
He supports fracking, opposes banning assault rifles, and says abortion goes against his Catholic faith, though he wouldn’t restrict access to it.
He soft-pedaled disagreements with Trump even as he promised to vote against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker.
On the other hand, he supports Obamacare and is critical of last year’s tax cuts.
Lamb’s embrace of labor unions and trade restraints helped him steal momentum from his opponent, Rick Saccone, over Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.
Cecil Roberts, the fiery president of the United Mine Workers of America, encapsulated Lamb’s blue-collar appeal on March 11 at the Greene County Fairgrounds, calling him “a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social-Security-believing, health-care-creating, and sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat.
” In other words, Lamb is not your daddy’s Democrat.
He’s more like your granddaddy’s—a throwback to an era when the two major parties were not as ideologically polarized as they are today.
For much of U.
history, party loyalty was often about regional identity, ethnicity, or family legacy, not ideology.
Lamb frequently tells Republicans, “I’m a Democrat because my grandfather was a Democrat, and he was because FDR was.
” Lamb’s popularity in a district where Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in 2014 and 2016 has some people arguing that moving rightward is the key to victory in November.
But Democrats can take the House even without winning districts as red as Pennsylvania’s 18th.
They need just 24 more seats for a majority, and Republicans hold 23 that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
Winning all or most of those, plus a few purple districts, would do the trick.
(Lamb will likely run in a different district—the 17th—in November, because the state Supreme Court is redrawing the map to end gerrymandering.
) In the special elections for Congress held since Trump took office, Democratic candidates have averaged about 12 percent more of the vote than history would suggest they’d receive.
They need only 4 percent above their historical average in the fall to take the House, says John Anzalone, a pollster and campaign strategist in Montgomery, Ala.
, who worked on the Obama and Clinton campaigns.
Steve Phillips, a San Francisco civil rights lawyer and author of a 2016 book, Brown Is the New White, argues that the Democrats will win by energizing their base, not by luring Trump voters.
Some Democrats are “still caught up in, ‘What can we do to change the minds of Trump supporters?’ ” he says.
“They should be more forceful about championing the values that Trump is attacking.
” Lamb also demonstrates the benefit of playing it safe.
Rather than criticize Trump, he mostly let others do the talking.
He focused on his support for unions and his service as a captain in the Marines.
For a political newbie, he ran a masterful race.
He raised more money than Saccone locally and withstood a last-ditch push against him by outside Republican groups.
Lamb is probably not the future of the Democratic Party.
But for Democrats itching to get back in power, every seat helps.

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