If Democrats are going to take back the House in 2018, one of the districts they'll need to win is PA-18, where a special election next month to replace disgraced Republican Tim Murphy (who left the House over an affair and abortion scandal involving his mistress) is a dead heat. Democrat Conor Lamb is running a tight campaign against Trump-supporting Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, but this is definitely rural red state Pennsylvania, and the voters here that turned on the Democrats over the last eight years did so with a vengeance. Lamb has a plan to win them back, but it's not exactly endearing him to Democrats outside the state.
Lamb, the Democratic candidate in a neck-and-neck special election on March 13, has to hope the people of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District will likewise listen to what he has to say before judging him by his party affiliation. In this part of the state, where highway billboards sport Bible verses and the start of deer hunting season is a holiday, Democratic politicians tend to flunk doctrinal tests. Even though registered Democrats technically outnumber Republicans here by 70,000, Trump won the district by nearly 20 percentage points. Mitt Romney and John McCain posted similar margins. Former Rep. Tim Murphy, the outspoken anti-abortion Republican whose seat Lamb is running to fill—Murphy resigned after reports that he encouraged his married mistress to get an abortion after a pregnancy scare—won eight straight elections, the first six by double-digit margins and the last two uncontested.
Lamb, a square-jawed 33-year-old Marine Corps officer who resigned from his job as a federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh to run, has a chance to upend the district’s politics—as long as he can avoid being labeled a liberal without discouraging the district’s not inconsiderable Democrat base from turning out. A devout Catholic, Lamb is pro-union and pro-gun, backs bipartisan deals for fixing Obamacare and the nation’s infrastructure, wants more job training and less college debt, and says he’s pro-fracking but pro-environment, too. And he’s betting that this mix of economic populism and moderate social politics can win the predominantly blue collar district. (Full disclosure: Lamb and I both played rugby at the University of Pennsylvania. We overlapped his senior year, 2005-06.)
Lamb’s opponent, state Rep. Rick Saccone—best known for sponsoring a bill that would have required posting “In God We Trust” on every school in the Commonwealth—has a simpler message: He was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” and is an enthusiastic supporter of the president’s agenda. But there are signs the president’s popularity is waning here. A Monmouth University poll showed 42 percent of voters in the 18th strongly disapprove of his performance, compared with just 37 percent who strongly approve. When asked if they support the president’s efforts in office, 48 percent said yes, 47 percent said no. Trump’s endorsement of Saccone made 5 percent of respondents say they were more likely to back Saccone; it made 8 percent say they were more likely to support Lamb.
Given these shifting politics, political observers say Lamb has a tight, but plausible, path to victory in March. He needs suburban women with college educations and moderate social views—both Democrats and Republicans wavering in their party allegiances post Trump—to back him big (which is probably why he praises nurses and teachers in the same breath as veterans and cops). He also needs the district’s 86,000 union households to vote their economic interests, and for enough of the rural, working-class Republican base to find him sufferable to stay home.
The Republican Party sees this path too—and is pouring resources, both money and manpower, into this Pennsylvania district ahead of March 13. So far, Republican super PACs have thrown millions into the race, opening canvassing offices and flooding Pittsburgh’s airwaves with ads calling Lamb a liberal. Trump himself made a visit to support Saccone—as have Ivanka Trump and Vice President Mike Pence—and says he will return.
After all, the stakes are enormous. As the polls narrow—the latest has Lamb just 3 points behind Saccone—this race is being closely watched by political seismologists for early tremors of an oncoming blue tsunami in the November midterms. If Lamb, a virtual unknown five months ago, can win this once seemingly impregnable Republican stronghold—one that so overwhelmingly supported Trump just 16 months ago, then other Democratic candidates across the country can do the same.
For Lamb to be anywhere close in a district that Trump won by 20 points really says something. But Lamb is very careful to say over the weekend that he doesn't believe in new gun control legislation, and doesn't support it, and says that Democrats should replace Nancy Pelosi as House leader. It's a careful path to victory here in a 93% white district.
What the Lamb race is going to do is test the theory that Democrats need to abandon "identity politcs" in favor of winning back more conservative white union voters in heavily white districts where there simply aren't enough black, Latino, and Asian voters to win. I've said before that it's a devil's trade.
We'll see if I'm right pretty soon.