Against the Grain

Democrats Hoping for a Shocker in Trump Country

Conor Lamb is running as a pro-gun, pro-union, pro-drilling Democrat in a region where voters have defected from the party en masse. Republicans hope that tying him to Nancy Pelosi is all that’s needed to hold onto this seat—and perhaps the House majority.

Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, talks about his campaign at his headquarters in Mount Lebanon, Pa., on Feb. 7.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Feb. 18, 2018, 6 a.m.

CARNEGIE, Pa.—This slice of western Pennsylvania is filled with politically homeless voters, once-reliable Democrats who have grown alienated by their party’s drift leftward. Many of these up-for-grabs constituents don’t fit any neat political typologies: They’re gun-owning seniors who want to make sure their entitlement programs are protected. They champion the fracking boom that has revitalized the region’s economy, but also care about clean air and water. They’re compassionate towards immigrants, but want them to learn English and assimilate into American society. A majority voted for Walter Mondale in 1984, but became Donald Trump supporters in 2016.

These are the type of voters that Democrats need to win back if they hope to hold governing majorities into the future. And these Pennsylvanians will soon be rendering a critical verdict that will be heard around the country in a closely watched congressional election on March 13: Can the party win back some of these blue-collar voters that have been drifting unmistakably towards Republicans?

Their nominee, Conor Lamb, is out of central casting for a district like this: a 33-year-old former assistant U.S. attorney who served as a captain in the Marine Corps and who claims he won’t support Nancy Pelosi for party leader if elected. He’s running on a Democratic throwback message—anti-tax-cut, pro-gun, and anti-Wall Street—hoping that his fiscally progressive, socially conservative views will resonate with independent-minded voters in the outer Pittsburgh suburbs. There are telltale signs he holds momentum: A Monmouth University poll conducted this week shows Lamb within 3 points of Republican Rick Saccone, a conservative state legislator running as an unbending Trump loyalist.

At an event Friday designed to showcase Lamb’s commitment to protecting Social Security, the candidate demonstrated how tricky it will be to maintain his unique appeal to moderates without ticking off liberal activists excited by his candidacy. Asked whether he would support new gun-control laws in the wake of the Florida school shooting, Lamb sounded a lot like President Trump: “The emotions a lot of us are now feeling are very raw. There’s not one thing you can do with the stroke of a pen or one thing you can ban. You need a comprehensive answer on mental health.”

At the campaign stop, he didn’t bring up Trump at all, choosing to focus his ire on House Speaker Paul Ryan and his support for entitlement reforms. “It bothers me when you see Paul Ryan talk about Social Security and Medicare as entitlements. He talks about them in this casual way as something he can just play around with and adjust,” Lamb said.

Those heterodox comments are what makes Lamb a compelling candidate, but such ideological apostasy didn’t play well with the party’s energized base—which has to show up in large numbers for Lamb to pull off the upset in a district Trump carried with 58 percent of the vote. News of his opposition to new gun regulations outraged liberal activists on social media, some of whom pledged not to donate any more money to his campaign.

“Democrats have to realize that Republicans can run conservative candidates everywhere and get to 218 House seats. Democrats can’t run liberals everywhere and get to a majority,” said Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mike Mikus, a veteran of campaigns in this region.

Mikus, who advised the campaign of 2016 Pennsylvania Senate nominee Katie McGinty, argued that the Democrats’ hard-line approach to environmental issues was a major factor in the party’s steady decline in western Pennsylvania. He recalled that Bill Clinton, before a campaign stop here, wanted to talk about a new fracking technology that would create more middle-class jobs and bring added wealth to the area. Hillary Clinton’s advisers in Brooklyn vetoed the idea. “The energy issue hurts Democrats out here more than guns and abortion combined. The environmental movement has outsized influence on Democratic policy, but its political impact is overstated. It’s all about the donors,” Mikus said.

Washington County, the district’s political base, is home to the most fracking wells in the state. Saccone’s campaign headquarters is located in a newly developed suburban office park packed with energy companies seeking to get a piece of the action. The wooded, picturesque site adjacent to a popular golf course used to be populated with steel mills decades earlier. For his part, Lamb defines himself on his campaign website as a champion of fracking: “Natural-gas extraction is creating and supporting a lot of good, middle-class jobs in our region, and I want more of those jobs for our people.”

The Democratic Party’s recent emphasis on cultural issues and the Trumpian sideshow at the expense of bread-and-butter economic issues is what’s giving Republicans optimism that blue-collar seats like these will remain under GOP control. A memo released this week by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA warned the party that “the extent of Democratic gains will be blunted if Democrats do not re-engage more aggressively in speaking to the economic and health care priorities of voters.”

National Democratic groups have privately anguished over how much emphasis to place on this district. They’re wary of spending aggressively and falling just short, nationalizing the race in a way that could be damaging to Lamb’s prospects. Several operatives also don’t believe it’s the type of district they need to win to take back the House majority. But a victory here in Trump country would shock the political world and send an unmistakable sign of a sizable Democratic wave in November.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee initially spent $276,000 on advertising, according to a media-tracking source, a small sum for an expensive campaign like this. It has been off air since last week, reliant on the Lamb campaign’s strong fundraising to remain within striking distance of the outside GOP money.

Republican groups—led by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC—have spent or reserved more than $5.8 million in ads for the race, much of it on spots labeling Lamb as a lapdog of Pelosi. They don’t even feel the need to mention specific issues; they’re confident that simply showing voters Pelosi’s image sends an unmistakable message that the Democratic Party is beholden to environmental and social policies that run against these voters’ interests.

When this reporter spent Thursday afternoon with door-knockers affiliated with the Congressional Leadership Fund, a consistent theme emerged: Today’s Democratic Party is unrecognizable from its working-class roots of yesteryear. All of the targeted voters were considered likely Saccone backers, but Republican field organizers were concerned that they might stay home out of apathy. (The Monmouth poll showed 48 percent of the district’s Democrats were following the race closely, compared to 26 percent of Republicans.)

“We grew up in a party that doesn’t resemble what’s going on today. My survival used to be dependent on the Democratic Party. My father wouldn’t recognize it. It’s the party of Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, and Hillary Clinton. How can you vote for them?” said Catherine Fiker, a former school board member from Westmoreland County. Her husband, William, wearing a deer-print shirt, said he was an avid hunter and now votes for Republicans because of “Second Amendment issues.”

The GOP ground game in the district is extensive. The Republican National Committee’s staffers have already knocked on roughly 90,000 doors in the district, according to spokeswoman Sarah Nelson. The cash-flush Congressional Leadership Fund has about 50 staffers in the district, and has set a goal of hitting 250,000 homes before the campaign is over.

Saccone, the GOP standard-bearer, is running a campaign designed to rally the hard-core conservative base over appealing to the district’s sizable contingent of union-affiliated gun owners who want to protect government entitlement programs. He touts his antipathy toward labor unions, a contrast from the district’s longtime former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who was regularly endorsed by the AFL-CIO. Saccone declared to National Journal that he’d be Trump’s “wingman” if elected to Congress.

“I believe in that same agenda that I ran on [for the state House] in 2010 and that President Trump nationalized: cutting taxes, cutting government spending, reducing regulations strangling our businesses, repealing and replacing Obamacare,” Saccone said. “My opponent and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party are for things like sanctuary cities, illegal aliens displacing union labor. … I’m for keeping the coal mines roaring.”

Or, as Congressional Leadership Fund Executive Director Corry Bliss put it: “The name of the game is to target the base and ensure they turn out on March 13. It’s very simple: If the base understands that a vote for Conor Lamb is a vote against the middle-class tax cut and a vote for Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda, then we win.”

But that litany of conservative talking points is being challenged by a Democratic candidate whose background and worldview are far from conventional liberalism. And even though the district is filled with working-class whites who defected from the Democratic Party, there are a sizable if smaller number of suburban Republicans who are experiencing their own identity crisis in the age of Trump. The president has pledged to campaign in the district before the election; he was forced to postpone a scheduled appearance next Wednesday in the wake of the Florida school shooting.

“Lamb is appealing to Republicans as well as Democrats. Saccone is just appealing to his base. [Lamb is] running as an independent candidate, which is appealing to voters in both parties,” said David Dorr, a retired JPMorgan Chase banker who was a lifelong Republican until Trump became the GOP’s presidential nominee. “Saccone is a decent man, but he said he would support Trump no matter what. He’s a carbon copy of the president.”

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