Carnegie Mellon students on working for the Lamb campaign

On March 14, Democrat Conor Lamb secured an upset victory in the tight special election race for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District against Republican Rick Saccone, in a district where Donald Trump outperformed Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the 2016 presidential election.

Lamb’s victory concludes a hard fought campaign in which he spent less money than his Republican counterpart and focused more on grassroots organizing.

Lamb is an ex-Marine, Catholic, and former prosecutor from just outside of Pittsburgh. As a centrist Democrat, he focused his campaign less on national issues and more on topics like building infrastructure through union labor and combating the Midwest’s opioid epidemic. This Democratic campaign resonated with a district that supported Trump heavily in 2016, narrowly giving Lamb the victory.

The GOP poured money into this race, as this special election was to be an important symbolic win for either party, in addition to being an important seat.

With midterm elections approaching, special elections like this one are viewed as a way to gauge public opinion, and to see how parties are performing.

The victory in the 18th district shows that political opinions are surely in flux, showing that former Trump supporters have begun to question his and Saccone’s positions in the formerly deeply Republican district. This district would not have been winnable without the hard work of many canvassers, phone bankers, and other grassroots supporters of Lamb. Carnegie Mellon University, though not in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, had its fair share of active participants in the Lamb campaign.

Wilson Ekern, a first year Technical Writing major, worked as a canvasser for the Lamb campaign. He says that he “was inspired to make a difference in what’s going on in the political sphere, plus they were paying $10 an hour, and they got me on a nice day.” His work included traversing the outer suburbs of Pittsburgh and making the case for Lamb. Canvassing is a vital part of campaigning, though mentally and physically exhausting.

One might expect Ekern to be a devoted Lamb supporter, given this work, but in reality, he says “I wouldn’t even consider myself a Democrat, I’m more left than that.” But given the state of the political sphere in the United States, and the intricacies of this region, Ekern “figured that Lamb’s stances could change things, and that’s a better goal for myself than someone passing a [political] purity test.”

Lydia Green, a senior in linguistics and an intern for the Lamb campaign, also liked Lamb’s issue-based campaign, finding, “He’s focused on reaching across the aisle to solve problems. He wants to represent the people by listening to voters and finding out what they really want.”

Another Carnegie Mellon student, Millie Zhang, a freshman studying International Relations and Politics, also canvassed for the Lamb campaign over the past few months. She told me that she agreed only with “some of Lamb’s positions, like protecting social security and reforming the student loan system.” Regardless of whether Zhang or Ekern are the biggest supporters of each and every one of Lamb’s positions, they both made their voices heard and made a serious impact in an extremely close race. Among them were many other students, not just from Carnegie Mellon University, but from all across Pittsburgh, all working to make one of the biggest political statements of the year.

Despite his win, Lamb will not represent this specific district for long, as the 18th District of Pennsylvania will cease to exist in the wake of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court decision on political gerrymandering. He will run again, though, but this time in Pennsylvania’s 17th District. Two other Democrats plan to challenge him in this race. While the future of Lamb’s political career is unknown, his current impact is not to be under-appreciated, as the win in a previously solidly Republican district signals a change in the national political climate.

Carnegie Mellon University may not be a hotbed of political action like some other notable universities, but regardless, many members of the Carnegie Mellon University community played a role in this historic race. That alone contradicts the narrative that Carnegie Mellon students are politically apathetic, and, furthermore, shows that students are capable of contributing to political outcomes.