Against the Grain

Who’s the Next Conor Lamb?

Democrats are pointing to several other underdogs to watch after scoring a stunning upset in the heart of Trump country.

Conor Lamb celebrates with his supporters at his election-night party in Canonsburg, Pa. on March 14.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
March 20, 2018, 8 p.m.

March has been a month full of upsets: University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s shocking win over the University of Virginia in the NCAA tournament and, of course, Conor Lamb’s underdog victory in the Pennsylvania-18 special election.

And in a political environment as volatile for Republicans as this one, there will be plenty more surprises come November. Wave elections are filled with examples of unprepared members who don’t expect to lose and end up getting caught up in the political undertow.

The sheer number of sleeper possibilities also demonstrates that Democrats have recruited many candidates who, like Lamb, are promising fits for conservative-minded districts. Here are four who could follow the same surprising path to victory on Election Night.

Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor (Ohio-12)

If the Pennsylvania special election served as a wake-up call for Republicans, a defeat in this longtime GOP seat based in the Columbus, Ohio exurbs would be a sign of surrender. The special election is being held in August, likely the last congressional contest before the November elections.

This district has an even longer Republican lineage than its Pennsylvania counterpart, having been represented by popular Reps. Pat Tiberi and John Kasich for more than three decades. But while President Trump won the district by 11 points, its suburban core underperformed for Republicans.

National Democrats are enthusiastic about the candidacy of O’Connor, a 31-year-old attorney who would be the youngest member of Congress if elected. If he wins a contested primary, he’ll be the next Democratic candidate to watch closely. Meanwhile, Republicans have a more muddled field, and face a risk of nominating another uninspiring candidate in another pivotal election.

Attorney Xochitl Torres Small (New Mexico-02)

When The Cook Political Report dubs a candidate as having the “potential to be a star,” it’s worth paying close attention. Torres Small received that billing this month, and she has the personal story to back it up. She’s a 33-year-old Latina who worked for Democratic Sen. Tom Udall and boasts close ties with the district’s liberal activists. But she has a cultural sensibility that’s a good fit for this rural district, boasting about her enthusiasm for butchering chickens and touting her gun ownership in a recent interview.

And this traditionally Republican seat should be more competitive than it looks on paper. Trump won only 50 percent of the vote here, losing significant support to home-state Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. It’s a majority-Hispanic district at a time when the GOP’s standing with Latino voters is badly strained. There’s no incumbent on the ballot—Rep. Steve Pearce is running for governor—giving Democrats a better opportunity than usual. And Gov. Susana Martinez is leaving office with weak approval ratings, raising the prospect of a big Democratic wave across New Mexico.

Air Force veteran MJ Hegar (Texas-31)

Democrats have made a concerted effort to recruit military veterans for office—many of them women. One of their most decorated candidates has been overlooked because she’s running in a reliably Republican Texas district, but has an outside chance at an upset against Rep. John Carter. Hegar received a Purple Heart for saving the lives of her passengers when her helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. She wrote a memoir, Shoot Like a Girl, promoted by Sen. John McCain, that recounts her service in Afghanistan and her battle for gender equality in the military. The book is being made into a movie, with Angelina Jolie in negotiations to star in it.

A made-for-Hollywood biography isn’t enough to win in conservative territory. But her military experience is a clear asset in a district that includes Fort Hood. And Carter faced vigorous competition from the right in his own primary, winning just 65 percent of the GOP vote.

This fast-growing district, not far from the state capital of Austin, is the type of white-collar district where Trump has lost ground. The president won just 53 percent here, 7 points worse than Mitt Romney did four years earlier. If Hegar raises enough money to tell her story, her biography alone has the potential to win support from some crossover Republicans.

Former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger (Virginia-07)

Rep. Dave Brat, a hard-line conservative who engineered a landmark upset by defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, is at risk of being blindsided himself this year. His suburban Richmond district, once safely Republican, has gravitated from Trump’s brand of in-your-face politics. And one of the Democratic front-runners, Spanberger, has a biography that’s tailor-made for the independent-minded voters in the district who will decide the race.

There are a lot of reasons for Democrats to be encouraged, based on recent elections in the district: Ed Gillespie only won 51 percent of the vote in last year’s governor’s race in this traditional GOP bastion. Democrats also flipped three House of Delegates seats within the district in last year’s election.

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