House Democrats’ Blue-Collar Test Case

Strategists will be parsing the results of a March special election in a Republican stronghold in Pennsylvania.

Former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, FILE
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Nov. 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

WASHINGTON, Pa.—Republicans were trounced this month in Virginia’s affluent suburbs, sending a warning signal to members in similar districts across the country. Now Democrats are eyeing a March special election in southwestern Pennsylvania as a way to test the party’s appeal to working-class voters.

During a Sunday afternoon nomination convention here, local Democratic committee members chose Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and Marine veteran, whose economic-focused message aimed at exposing a Republican-led Congress’ broken promises.

The race is to replace former Rep. Tim Murphy, an antiabortion Republican who resigned in October after allegations that he urged a mistress to terminate a pregnancy.

“We are confronting today a public hypocrisy fully equal to the private hypocrisy of Tim Murphy,” Lamb told more than 550 Democrats gathered in a high school gymnasium in Washington County. “We remember that they promised us jobs and they can’t even introduce an infrastructure bill, the one thing that would create jobs here tomorrow.”

Bashing House Republicans’ attempts to take away health care in the throes of an opioid crisis, and their tax overhaul as beneficial only to the “1 percent,” Lamb touched on a buyer’s-remorse narrative similar to one floated by House Democratic leaders as a way to entice Rust Belt voters who backed Donald Trump in 2016.

Though Lamb’s campaign is in its early stages, the race could offer a case study on effective Democratic messaging just as the midterm primary season kicks off. The Virginia state elections this month emboldened Democrats’ suburban prospects in places like Northern Virginia and Orange County, California, but to close a 24-seat deficit the party will also need to compete in blue-collar regions where it can’t rely on anti-Trump fervor.

Pennsylvania’s 18th District, a reliably Republican stronghold that backed Trump and Mitt Romney by 20 and 17 points, respectively, has not been competitive recently, though Democrats have a voter-registration advantage of about 70,000. Spread across four counties in an L shape along the West Virginia border, the district has some affluent pockets in the South Hills of Pittsburgh but also includes old steel towns, and its economy relies heavily on manufacturing.

“In some ways, this is a good test for the Democratic Party,” said Democratic strategist Mike Mikus, who helped engineer former Rep. Mark Critz’s successful 2010 special-election bid in a neighboring district. “If this race is close, even if the Democrats come up short, people will learn a lot from what goes on here. If they win it, Republicans will have every right to be completely terrified.”

While Republicans are strongly favored to hold the seat, Pennsylvania Democrats sense a rare opportunity, in part because of the GOP nominee. Many at the convention described as a gift the nomination of state Rep. Rick Saccone, who is well known for pushing a bill requiring schools to publicly display the motto “In God We Trust.”

And Saccone, who has taken votes to scale back prevailing wages and is endorsed by the Pennsylvania Right to Work PAC, may struggle to emulate Murphy’s strength with factions of organized labor. The district has nearly 90,000 union members who make up close to a quarter of the electorate, according to Darrin Kelly, the incoming president of the Allegheny-Fayette County Labor Council.

“Tim Murphy was friendly to a lot of our groups. He was very friendly to some of our unions,” Kelly said in an interview during the convention. “We don’t have those types of qualities with Rick Saccone.”

In an interview, Saccone described himself as a job creator and a strong advocate for the building trades. He pushed back on the idea that he was too conservative for the district, citing his record of reaching across the aisle in Harrisburg.

“Just about everything I’ve done up here has been bipartisan,” Saccone said. “I spent a year in North Korea successfully negotiating with the North Koreans, so obviously I can find common ground with anyone.”

Stressing his background as an Air Force veteran and his work with an international organization in North Korea seeking to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons, Saccone cast himself as the most experienced candidate in the race and promised to uphold the Republican agenda on issues ranging from cutting taxes to reducing government regulation.

Saccone, who was running for Senate before Murphy’s sudden resignation, said he hired Hank Hallowell and Bob Branstetter as his political consultants and has secured campaign staff.

It’s not clear if either national party will play in the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee notably left it off its recently expanded 91-district battlefield, but it will closely assess the matchup now that the field is set. However, the special is scheduled for the start of primary season, when the committee could have other spending priorities.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which has met with the Saccone campaign and is watching the race, is confident the seat will remain in Republican hands with a weak national Democratic brand. Speaking to reporters after his win, Lamb said it was “too soon” to answer questions on whether he supports House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but he will be tied to her regardless.

“Nancy Pelosi and Conor Lamb are fighting to protect the failed status quo that voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2016,” NRCC spokesman Chris Martin said.

Republicans noted that many registered Democrats in the district favor gun rights and oppose abortion rights, perhaps creating salient wedge issues. And a condensed electoral calendar adds another complicating layer; after a March special election, Saccone and Lamb must still win their respective primaries in May to vie for a full term in November.

Lamb, who hails from a prominent political family, beat out six other Democrats in the nomination contest. The second-place finisher, Gina Cerilli, a Westmoreland County commissioner, didn’t rule out running again in the May primary but voiced support for Lamb in the special election. Pam Iovino, a former Veterans Affairs official who finished third, said she would not primary a Democratic incumbent—though the filing deadline is a week before the special.

At the convention, Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle, who represents Pittsburgh, offered Lamb his support. While conceding that the 18th would be difficult for Democrats to win, Doyle described Lamb as a strong contender, noting his roots in the Democratic-friendly Allegheny County, where the party needs to run up the margins.

“The question is what happens in four months. Do we win? Do we lose by a point or 2? Do we lose by 20?” he said. “I think it’s going to set a narrative, at least in this neck of the woods.”

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