Democrats rejoice. Crack open the champagne, pat yourselves on the back, and welcome Conor Lamb, the apparent winner of the latest special election, to Washington with open arms.
But then sober up, for you may not see his likes again. Democrats say there are many Conor Lambs out there. Honk if you’re a Democrat who’s served in the military, holds a respectable job and has an all-American family who’s not been recruited to run.
It’s just that not every candidate with the right resume is a best-in-show candidate as Lamb was, a prosecutor who put drug dealers in jail in a place where opioids are killing family and neighbors, and didn’t talk like an Ivy Leaguer. Most candidates can’t pull off being Mr. Potato Head, loose parts plugged in to make him look palatable to a divergent electorate: a Democrat against abortion, at home firing an AR-15 when 17 children were just slain at school in Parkland, and comfortable throwing shade on his party’s leader Nancy Pelosi in the midst of resurgent women’s movement led by #MeToo.
That and a decent economic message that neutralized the tax bill is what it took to do well not just in Allegheny County outside Pittsburgh but in blood-red Westmoreland and Washington counties. This is not to say Democrats shouldn’t go right or won’t be able to without losing their souls. Certainly being in the minority erodes your soul and steps must be taken. But not everyone is as smooth as Lamb, not every election is special, and not every opponent as weak as Rick Saccone, although he wasn’t as lame as his party would have you believe.
Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district may be conservative but we now see a limit in such places for Trump-style chaos. I’m from Harrisburg in the swath of the state called Alabama, where we like our coffee burnt, our funnel cakes coated in sugar, and remember the 50’s fondly. Generally, a candidate as dull as Saccone would go down easily.
But Trump, who’s not delivered much to them but chaos, was on the ballot, despite Lamb trying to downplay that in his victory lap Wednesday. Trump is so unhinged right now that a rally meant to help Saccone was so full of self-involved ranting and rambling it likely hurt more than it helped. The president is in a particularly unhinged phase. Driving to the polls, voters were treated to coverage of the firing of the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which could have only been handled more poorly if chief of staff John Kelly hadn’t kept the president from doing it while his top diplomat was on foreign soil trying to patch up the president’s s-hole remarks about Africa.
He not only took out his admittedly weak secretary but did so in a coward’s way by twitter, relishing the cruelty, like the bully on the playground who punches you where you are already bruised. Pre-Trump winning CD-18 by 20 points, those voters agreed with Tillerson on the merits: that there’s a lot of work to be done to make Trump’s impulsive decision to meet with Kim Jong-Un have a chance of bearing fruit and that going soft on Russia is a fool’s game that may have emboldened Vladimir Putin to poison two former spies sitting on a bench in London with nerve gas.
As Tillerson was taking deep gulps in an emotional farewell press conference, Trump was promising yet more firings. There should be—Trump chose losers he’s tired of with good reason, in particular those who make headlines flying around on what look like vacations and first class ones to boot.
But Trump revulsion is not a given among voters like those in PA-18. True, we can be fairly certain he’s going to keep up the behavior the parent of a high school sophomore wouldn’t tolerate. The president can rise five points in the polls by merely reading a State of the Union speech off the teleprompter, hiring a Marine general to run the place, and getting rid of the disheveled, angry Steve Bannon. The bar is so low, we’ve grown accustomed to so much, it doesn’t take much for relief from the turmoil to provide a bump.
Much of the energy among Democrats lies not with the Lamb model but with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wing, who play well on the coasts but not far inland. The tent has to grow to win but not so big it collapses under the weight of bolted-together, focus-grouped candidates.
In some ways, Lamb is a novelty act, given a one-time pass to talk trash about Nancy Pelosi. The press noted it but didn’t pound away every day. As is often the case, there was unconscious rooting not for the candidate but the story, an upset by an underdog that might signal a blue wave. So Lamb got away with it.
But for others, taking a swipe at the most powerful Democratic woman in the country might lose the growing bloc of female voters 30 and up who can pull Democrats across the finish line in close races. Hugging an AR-15 to neutralize the NRA while holding on to those who think it’s ludicrous that any teenager can buy a weapon of mass destruction is a stunt that shouldn’t be tried again. What’s more these students will constitute a big, motivated, and perhaps single-issue voting bloc of their own before too long.
Still, take a victory lap, be happy today, but don’t think 2018 is so much brighter because Sen. Doug Jones beat a pederast in Alabama and Lamb, the fresh-faced Marine with a gun and a smile, squeaked by in Pennsylvania. It’s going to take a village and so much more.