How Conor Lamb Localized the Pennsylvania Special Election

He put a deep red district in play despite millions in Republican spending to tie him to national Democrats.

Democrat Conor Lamb goes on a campaign walk through a neighborhood in Carnegie, Pa. on Wednesday.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
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Ally Mutnick
March 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

BELLE VERNON, Pa.—In ads, rallies, and stump speeches, Conor Lamb has turned the avalanche of spending by national Republicans into a populist rallying cry that has him on the verge of an upset special-election victory in the heart of Trump country.

GOP outside groups have dumped more than $7 million into a barrage of negative ads in Pennsylvania’s 18th District as of late last week, according to media-buying data, casting the Democratic former federal prosecutor as everything from soft on crime to a crony of their favorite boogeyman, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“Think of everything they could do for working people with $1 million a day, other than run these ridiculous ads,” Lamb told a crowd here at a meet-and-greet last week, when an agitated supporter brought up the attacks. “They think they can drown out people’s voices—they really do. They think they can use their money to drown out everything we’ve been saying.”

Lamb, who is neck-and-neck with Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone in a district that the president won by 20 points, worked tirelessly to keep his focus local, insulate himself from the toxicity of the Democratic Party brand here, and turn Republican attempts to nationalize the race against Saccone.

He didn’t go on cable TV news. He rarely held press conferences. He took no corporate PAC money and did little else that would give the impression that his priorities lie anywhere outside the four counties that comprise the district.

Lamb, who broke with his party on an assault-weapons ban, fracking, and Medicare-for-all, would be one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress. And that likely helps him earn crucial support from voters who backed President Trump.

“Not a single person so far has stopped talking to me based on who they voted for in 2016,” Lamb said in an interview. “Most people don’t bring it up, and I never ask.”

His message about national GOP intervention helped drive digital fundraising—financial records show at least $2.4 million of his haul came from the online fundraising conduit ActBlue—and is also one espoused by organized labor, a key constituency spearheading a massive turnout operation.

“They’re starting to see it,” said Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, who reported fielding complaints about “black money” at 80 percent of the 142 doors he knocked. “Because they can’t watch the 11 o’clock news without having 75 commercials on it.”

At a Friday evening get-out-the-vote event with the United Steelworkers, speaker after speaker railed against all the outside spending. When Lamb took the stage, he told the crowd that the people paying for the ads are the same ones “bankrolling the Janus lawsuit,” referencing a pending Supreme Court case that could debilitate public unions.

Saccone might be taking a hit for his party’s spending onslaught. His disapproval rating in a Monmouth poll released Monday was at 43 percent, 10 points higher than Lamb’s.

“The ‘Nancy had a little Lamb’ ad was counterproductive,” Pennsylvania GOP strategist Charlie Gerow said. “There’s always a negative reaction to outside groups coming in and telling folks how to vote or what to do.”

Lamb’s messaging in recent ads painted Saccone as beholden to the GOP interests funding his campaign and touted himself as an independent voice. One spot accused Saccone of trying to trick voters into thinking that the biggest issue in the race was Pelosi, whom he publicly disavowed on Jan. 8. “The real issues are the ones that affect your lives,” Lamb said in the spot, listing Medicare, Social Security, and education as his priorities.

Saccone’s operation was propped up financially by major Republican outside groups and relied heavily on visits by administration officials to drum up enthusiasm.

Lamb allies said the Democrat ran a decidedly lower-profile race that may have burnished his independent profile. He spent 12-hour days retail-campaigning, knocking on doors, and meeting voters at community events. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton native, joined Lamb at two events last week, but he mostly kept national Democrats at a distance.

After he won the nomination at a November convention, Lamb declined the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recommendations for political consultants and doubled down on a local team, said Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle, a Lamb confidant who represents Pittsburgh.

“From the very beginning, Conor made it very clear that he did not want this to be a national race,” Doyle said. “Right up front, he basically put DCCC on notice.”

Abby Murphy, Lamb’s campaign manager, has run local campaigns in Allegheny County, the largest in the district, and Lamb’s brother Coleman, a Capitol Hill flack, worked behind the scenes. While he hired prominent Democratic media firm AKPD, one notable political consultant listed in the campaign’s financial filings is John Seidman, a member of Pittsburgh’s old political guard perhaps best known for advising Sophie Masloff, the city’s mayor from 1988 to 1994.

The Lamb campaign also took a fairly cautious earned-media approach.

The most extensive profile of Lamb was written by a former classmate at the University of Pennsylvania, where they overlapped for a year and both played rugby. And most, if not all, of the national-media stories that included interviews with Lamb featured a dateline from within the district. The campaign wouldn’t typically put him on the phone but made him available for a few minutes if a reporter traveled here.

He intentionally didn’t invite the kind of star power that surrounded Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee in last year’s special election in suburban Atlanta.

An ABC News This Week segment on Feb. 4 that featured an interview with Saccone pointedly noted Lamb did not accommodate its request for an interview while the network’s crew was in town, and used footage of him speaking with a local affiliate.

“Usually a congressional candidate with a chance to get on national television would run over their mother in a car to do that,” said Mike Butler, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist. “They don’t want to show up in anything that looks like they’re D.C.”

Graphic by John Irons
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