PA-18 results signal national political shift before midterms
On Tuesday, March 13, Democrat Conor Lamb of Mount Lebanon, PA beat his Republican opponent Rick Saccone of Elizabeth, PA in a close special congressional race in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Donald Trump won this race’s district, Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. Causes of the district's dramatic flip, as well as what other Democrats in red or swing states should replicate from this election, have been the subject of national speculation.
As an intern for the Lamb campaign, I had a front-row seat to the action. As I saw it, one of the primary reasons for our victory was the heavily people-powered nature of our campaign. There was a reason that Lamb began his victory speech by saying, “We did it. You did it!” Without the help of our many hardworking volunteers, the campaign could not have achieved anything. In the month or so leading up to the election, we had steady streams of volunteers coming in and out of the field offices to knock on doors and phonebank from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week. In addition to our many dedicated adult volunteers, we also had a team of about 80 youth volunteers who put their heart and soul (and even a few school days) into the campaign. All of these volunteering efforts only intensified during get out the vote (GOTV) weekend.
The same could not be said of the Saccone campaign, which struggled to find a base of local enthusiasm. Consequently, much of the field outreach on the part of the Saccone team had to be done by paid canvassers and out-of-state volunteers. Mike Cox, a Saccone volunteer who flew in from California to help the campaign, complained to NBC News that “some of the locals are just kind of sitting back...they don’t even want to be a part of it.” But, local apathy was a problem only faced by the Republican candidate. While the Lamb campaign did see a number of volunteers come to the district from places like New York and Washington D.C., we had no trouble finding dedicated locals willing to devote hours to knocking on doors.
Another related difference between the two campaigns was their respective finances. The Lamb campaign refused to take money from super Political Action Committees (PACs), relying instead on grassroots funding and managing to raise over $3.3 million with an average individual donation of only $33. Lamb outraised Saccone five-to-one, causing outside Republican groups to pick up Saccone’s slack and pour $9 million into the race. The fact that Lamb rejected PAC donations in favor of small individual contributions and outraised Saccone is yet another example of how Lamb’s was a campaign by the people, for the people: while Saccone’s campaign was largely financed by a few powerful members of the Republican Party, Lamb’s campaign was financed by the people of western Pennsylvania.
Perhaps one reason that western Pennsylvanians were so fired-up to volunteer for, donate to, and eventually vote for Lamb was his focus on local issues. Looking just at his website, one can see that among his main priorities are tackling the opioid epidemic and protecting social security and Medicare. These are issues that hit close to home for many district members. The reach of the opioid crisis in western Pennsylvania means that many of Lamb’s now-constituents have friends or family members struggling with addiction and stand to benefit from the care that Lamb advocates for. Additionally, Medicare and social security are especially important in western Pennsylvania, where the population is aging. Many residents of the 18th congressional district personally rely on these public resources to live with dignity.
Less than a week before the election, I was in the room as Lamb spoke with a group of the youth team volunteers. He discussed the importance of showing gratitude for workers. Some people work challenging, miserable jobs, and these people deserve our thanks as well as basic human dignity, he argued. It was precisely this gratitude that compelled local labor unions to throw their unwavering support behind Lamb. Additionally, an endorsement and visit from Pennsylvania’s own blue-collar hero, former Vice President Joe Biden, at a Lamb GOTV rally, held at the Carpenters Training Center, certainly didn’t hurt the campaign’s favor with labor. As Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear of The New York Times wrote, “the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] helped win Attorney General Jeff Sessions' former Alabama Senate seat for Doug Jones in December. Organized labor, once seen as fractured and feckless in the Trump era, gave the Democrat Conor Lamb his edge in Pennsylvania.”
While the scope of the campaign’s volunteer efforts, grassroots funding, focus on local issues, and strong union support are the main reasons I believe we won and are the main strengths of the campaign that the national Democratic Party should emulate going into the midterm elections this fall, in the aftermath of the election, media outlets have not been focusing on them, spotlighting Lamb’s moderatism and voters’ attitudes towards Donald Trump instead.
For instance, one article from The Hill with the headline “Conor Lamb proves running as moderate is a winning strategy” makes the argument that Lamb won because voters saw his moderatism as a sign that he was realistic and willing to live up to his promises. The article says, “to be a moderate is to believe in getting things done and building consensus. Lamb shows that you don't have to have moderate views on every issue to be a moderate. You simply have to be willing to put solutions above ideology. The political system we have needs moderate voices in order to function, and the rising political fortunes of moderate candidates may bring a new era of legislative productivity to Congress.”
The benefits that this article describes of electing moderates are not solely the domain of moderates — liberal Democrats can (and should) also “believe in getting things done” and putting “solutions above ideology.” In fact, from my experience talking to voters, it seemed that people appreciated Lamb’s dedication to solutions above ideology or party as well as the fact that his platform came from his honest values rather than any particularly moderate position he held. Additionally, I would guess that Lamb’s more conservative views on guns and abortion lost him more votes than they earned him — for every one Republican who would volunteer, it seemed that there were three who would call in to the office to tell us that they wouldn’t vote for Lamb because he wasn’t a true supporter of life. Conservative voters did not seem to believe that Lamb would truly defend their values. In the 21st century, a Democrat can never out-conservative a Republican.
Additionally, the liberal base of Lamb supporters, the group primarily in Allegheny County where there was the strongest support for Lamb on election night, seemed a bit turned off by Lamb’s more conservative positions. It seemed that most of the campaign’s volunteers and even most of the core field staff were far more liberal than Lamb himself. Perhaps there would have been even more enthusiasm from this Democratic base and a greater margin of victory if Lamb had maintained his honesty and dedication to solutions and bipartisanship but moved his positions, or end goals, further to the left.
The media’s other main takeaway from this election seems to be that PA-18 voters elected a Democrat because they regret electing Trump. Many articles like “House Race in Pennsylvania May Turn on Trump Voters’ Regrets” from The New York Times have cropped up to argue that a Lamb victory is a sign of weakening support for the President. But, people are not that rational or predictable and often experience cognitive dissonance. Just as some people supported both Obama and Trump, people voted for Lamb while maintaining support for the President, even though the two offered very different solutions to the problems of the working class. What won both men their respective elections was that their visions both addressed the problems of the working class (along with other groups) in ways that voters thought to be common sense solutions. People who saw the logic of Trump’s policies in 2016 still have the capability of reasoning in that same way again, even if they did vote for Lamb. After all, it was not Trump up for election here. As Lamb told a reporter on election day just after voting, “[The race] says a lot about Democratic enthusiasm around here. People are really excited about this race, and I’m happy for them that their voices are going to be heard all around the world today. But this is a local race, people are voting for either me or Rick Saccone I don’t think it has anything to do with the president.”