The results aren’t yet official, but Conor Lamb’s apparent nail-biter special election win in a Western Pennsylvania congressional district that two years ago favored Donald Trump by 20 points is an unmistakable good sign for Democrats heading into the November midterm elections. Republican Rick Saccone couldn’t be saved by Trump’s tax reform bill or $10 million in outside campaign cash. And there are more than 100 Republican-held House seats in districts less conservative than this one. Many incumbents in those districts will likely choose retirement over getting soaked by a “blue wave.”
No wonder Republicans are worried.
Yet the way Lamb won does little to help Democrats adjudicate the raging debate on the left over how should they run in November: as proud left-wing populists or relative moderates willing to reach across the aisle. The 33-year old Marine vet, federal prosecutor and Allegheny County political progeny didn’t pick a side. He took some positions from out of each camp’s bucket, all while brandishing his assault rifle.
The populist wing can point to Lamb’s unapologetic defense of Social Security and Medicare from Speaker Paul Ryan’s long-standing goal of cost-saving “entitlement reform.” In a district full of working-class people, Lamb pledged to defend “union rights” while his Republican opponent Rick Saccone had a record of support for anti-union “right to work” laws. Trump arguably levied tariffs on steel last week in part to help Saccone with the district’s Pittsburgh-area workers, but Lamb celebrated the new trade barriers, as have other protectionists on the left. He rejected Trump’s tax reform as a giveaway to the rich, and one ad touted Lamb as an antidote to a Congress that “care[s] more about the corporations and the wealthy than the normal people.”
But Lamb was hardly a poster child for democratic socialism. He did not campaign on the left’s most cherished policy plank of a single-payer health insurance system. In fact, he followed the advice of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s cautious health-care polling memo, which said, “The American people overwhelmingly want Congress to improve the Affordable Care Act, not repeal it or replace it with something radically different.”
That memo, upon being leaked, attracted criticism for suggesting “Medicare for All” was a liability, and not, as progressive populists insist, an idea with the political juice necessary to boost base turnout. Yet Lamb did just fine defending the “progress” made by the ACA and promising to “fix what isn't working, and make the law better.”
Lamb stayed away from another major progressive populist goal, a $15 minimum wage, which he said “sounds high based on what I’ve been told by many small business owners in our area.” He did not endear himself to some environmentalists when he supported natural gas fracking, siding with energy industry workers still reeling from the decline of the coal industry.
Since the Parkland massacre, progressive populists have been pushing Democrats to embrace gun control (though last year, many on the left excused candidates who married economic populism with gun rights such as Montana’s Rob Quist). Lamb began his campaign with a biographical spot showing him with an AR-15 and letting voters know he “still loves to shoot.” While he backed “universal background checks” after Parkland, he also reiterated his opposition to an assault weapons ban.
He also emphasized bipartisanship, much like Sen. Doug Jones did in Alabama, running ads promising to “end the partisan divide,” venting about a “Congress where no one works together” and even throwing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi under the bus as an example of failed congressional leadership. Progressives often chafe at paeans to bipartisanship, believing Republicans should be painted as corporate-backed impediments to populist goals. Establishment Democrats tend to view such rhetoric as the political Castor Oil one must take to pick off seats on red turf.
Perhaps that’s why the DCCC was comfortable looking past Lamb’s dig at Pelosi and quietly funneling $1 million into his campaign that funded field staff and get-out-the-vote efforts, while the committee’s progressive critics – such as Our Revolution, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Justice Democrats – left Lamb off their endorsement lists. Lamb got robust support from labor unions, despite some early grumbling over his minimum wage position, and they deserve a healthy share of credit. But so does the oft-maligned DCCC. It might have flopped in last week’s Texas primary, but it recovered ably in Western Pennsylvania.
The DCCC is inclined to favor candidates it considers to be good fits for their districts; if a district tilts right, the DCCC will be hesitant to spend a lot of campaign cash on a candidate who swerves left. Many progressives have a different view -- they insist that proud, authentic populists can win anywhere, especially in working-class districts that sided with Trump.
Lamb’s “populism lite” approach doesn’t definitively disprove that argument, but after a year of special congressional elections in reddish areas, the progressive populists lack a model case of their own. Their preferred 2017 candidates, Quist in Montana and James Thompson in Kansas, fell short, while the more moderate Doug Jones triumphed in Alabama. While some credited Roy Moore’s scandals more than Jones’ positions for the victory, Lamb’s similar performance augurs otherwise.
Lamb’s apparent victory doesn’t prove that everyone Democrat on the ballot in November should run just like him. Many competitive races will be in districts with markedly different demographic profiles. Pennsylvania’s 18th district was heavily white and rural with a low percentage of college graduates. Other districts targeted by Democrats will be less culturally conservative, more racially diverse and more educated. Single-payer may strike a bigger chord in other contests, while support of gun rights and fracking may not, and disparaging Pelosi – which, if it became a trend, could wreak havoc with party unity – may not be necessary.
But Lamb’s performance does suggest that Democratic candidates can tailor their messages to their home districts, appeal to swing voters and pacify the Republican base, while still generating strong Democratic base turnout. Republicans were able to nationalize some of last year’s elections and fire up Trump supporters, pegging Montana’s Quist and Georgia’s Jon Ossoff as rubber stamps for Washington Democrats. Lamb – perhaps because he came from a political family with deep roots in the area – successfully defined himself on his own terms.
Progressive populists have their midterm election hopes invested in primary candidates like Laura Moser in Texas’ Seventh and Marie Newman in Illinois’ Third. In all likelihood, there will be some general election House candidates in their mold, who can fully test their propositions come November. But as the primary season gears up, those preaching electoral pragmatism, policy restraint and a bipartisan veneer have high-profile special election success stories to cite. Progressive populists are still waiting.