The party, resurgent as President Trump’s first year in office draws to a scandal-ridden, unpopular close, will face its next major test on a potential path to winning back a majority in the House of Representatives in a March special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district.
The seat, held by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) since 2003, was left vacant following his resignation in October after a stunning report revealed that he had told a mistress to abort a possible pregnancy. Comprising a mix of coal-mine country, rural regions in the southwest corner of the state, and the very wealthy suburbs outside of Pittsburgh, it’s the kind of district that has been trending Republican for at least a decade. And it’s one where President Trump won by almost 20 points in the 2016 election, helping him win the state and ultimately the presidency.
But Democrats, who didn’t even put up a candidate to challenge Murphy in 2016, believe that they have a shot at winning this district back due to the strength of their candidate, a weaker Republican opponent, and a national climate that spells a wave for the party in next year’s elections.
Their hopes rest on 33-year-old veteran Conor Lamb, a former assistant U.S. attorney selected by local Democrats to be their standard-bearer last month.
“Each party has their base, but you have a guy like Conor who is going to have a lot of cross-party appeal,” John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and candidate for lieutenant governor, told The Daily Beast. “I think the Democrats picked extremely well and I think the Republicans picked extremely poorly.”
Republicans selected conservative state Rep. Rick Saccone who has said in the past that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump” and is known for introducing the National Motto Display Act in 2013, which would have required public school districts statewide to post “In God We Trust,” in every building. In the Keystone state, Democrats view Saccone as a political insider, a hobnobber in Harrisburg who eats meals on lobbyists’ dime and was previously endorsed by the Pennsylvania Right to Work Political Action Committee, an affront to the district’s large union population. Saccone initially had pursued a run for the Senate against Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA) but later decided to enter the House race.
Democrats in the state see an opportunity for Lamb to flip the seat with a combination of the vote-rich suburbs of Allegheny County and strong union backing throughout the rest of the district. And Saccone, they say, will be tied to the unpopular administration and the even more unpopular Republican-led Congress currently pushing through a tax bill that would affect the bottom line of a major portion of the district’s voters.
In the same way that Sen.-elect Doug Jones (D-AL) had a unique biography helping to provide a character contrast in his race, Democrats believe Lamb’s background gives him the ability to speak to the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania, which claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people last year. When he was assistant U.S. attorney from 2014 to 2017, Lamb focused heavily on prosecuting drug dealers out of the Justice Department’s Pittsburgh office.
The campaign has also noticed spiking enthusiasm in recent weeks as voters, including union members, have been excited about actually having a Democrat they can vote for in the district.
“The steelworkers have by far the largest union membership of any in the district,” Mike Mikus, a Democratic operative in the area told The Daily Beast. “The Republicans played right into the Democrats’ hands in this district by talking about cutting Medicare and Medicaid,” he said referring to an agenda item for 2018 from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).
As opposed to Virginia and Alabama, Lamb won’t be able to benefit from a major minority voting bloc in the district, which is about 95 percent white. Instead, he will have to animate union members and their households, which Mikus estimated would make up about 25 percent of the vote in the district.
That effort could start with people like Darrin Kelly, executive vice president of the Allegheny County Labor Council.
“We believe that the extreme right of the GOP is completely controlled by corporate America,” Kelly told The Daily Beast from his truck, which he affectionately referred to as his office. “We believe that everything that comes in front of this Congress is geared towards taking care of the top one percent.”
Kelly, whose organization recently sent out a recommendation of unanimous support to the state’s AFL-CIO, said that voters in the district who were sympathetic to Trump’s populist campaign are starting to view his agenda as aligning with the corporate-oriented Republican Congress.
“I don’t think there’s any daylight at all because they’re walking hand in hand,” Kelly asserted.
Lamb’s campaign, in its early stages, is not yet attracting the sort of stratospheric attention and money that other congressional special elections did in 2017. But when and if that time comes, Lamb may find himself somewhat at odds with the national party’s position on social issues, focusing largely on issues of jobs and infrastructure in the state.
When asked about abortion, Lamb has said “choice is the law of the land,” and he would uphold said law despite his Catholic faith. He has also suggested that there should be a conversation about gun regulation. But Lamb and Democrats in the state seem to think that economic arguments, not social issues, are going to win the day.
“This district isn’t as conservative as it is populist,” Mikus told The Daily Beast. “This tax bill is anything but populist.”
Months away from a March showdown, national observers are taking notice of Lamb’s efforts, hoping it continues a trend for Democrats in the age of Trump.
“The argument is pretty straightforward: While the GOP is distracting and dividing working folks, they are picking your pocket, hammering your union, gutting your benefits, and raiding your retirement,” Paul Begala, who has a rich history in Pennsylvania, including working for Bob Casey Sr.’s gubernatorial campaign, told The Daily Beast. “The modern Democratic Party was built on that argument, and I think it is more powerful and relevant now than ever. I never saw a sign at a Trump rally that said: “CUT TAXES FOR GOLDMAN SACHS!”
Begala pointed to an unlikely source of inspiration for a unifying message: former NBA all-star Charles Barkley, who helped boost Jones’ Alabama Senate campaign in recent days.
“Barkley spoke from Doug Jones’ headquarters about how poor black folks and poor white folks are both being screwed and that he wanted Democrats to fight for them,” Begala said.
“It’s a long way from Montgomery to Monessen, but I think the same message resonates in both places.”