On paper, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb appears lab-engineered to win in a purple state.
A retired Marine who prosecuted sexual misconduct cases as an attorney, Lamb has spent two terms terms in Congress establishing a reputation as a moderate Democrat who found a way to win races in “Trump Country”—including in a House district that favored Republicans by double digits.
But six months after his August announcement, Lamb’s Senate bid in Pennsylvania is not going according to plan.
Lagging in the polls and falling behind in fundraising, Lamb was left off a list of local politicians who assembled to greet President Joe Biden when he visited Philadelphia earlier this month.
To make matters worse, a poll recently commissioned by Lamb’s own super PAC showed his main Democratic opponent—John Fetterman—not just beating him in a primary where the more liberal candidate often has more traction; polling showed Fetterman as the better candidate in a general election, against potential GOP nominees like Dr. Mehmet Oz.
And Lamb’s super PAC didn’t just see Fetterman with a small edge. What it saw, according to Politico, was Lamb trailing Fetterman by 30 points. Barring a miraculous turn of events, that kind of lead would almost be insurmountable.
Lamb’s operatives insist the reality is far less dire and the state of the race is far more fluid. For one, most voters still haven’t made up their minds. For another, Lamb’s super PAC has reportedly been testing negative messaging against Fetterman, like labeling him a “socialist” and saying he’s “spoken at ‘Defund the Police’ rallies and wants to release convicted felons back onto our streets.”
“This race is wide open. The biggest question on the minds of Pennsylvania Democrats is who can win in November,” said Lamb Campaign Manager Abby Nassif-Murphy in a statement to The Daily Beast. “When they find out that John Fetterman has real baggage and has never beaten a Republican, they have serious questions.”
The Fetterman campaign in a statement called the tested messaging “Fox News talking points” and said it’s “a desperate move from a campaign that hasn’t been able to raise the money on its own, and hasn’t broken through with anyone except for some political insiders.”
Still, with less than two months until the primary, Fetterman—the state’s tall, gym-shorts-wearing, tattooed lieutenant governor—is dominating the Democratic Senate primary, to the bewilderment of the political establishment in the Keystone State.
While Lamb has seen a recent sweep of notable backers, including from the Philadelphia Democratic Party, Fetterman has built broad support without major endorsements, mostly drawing approval from city council and school board members.
Philadelphia party leaders said the lieutenant governor hasn’t engaged with the city’s political brass to the same degree as Lamb. But Fetterman’s campaign said that’s by design.
“We believe this campaign is not going to be won in hotel ballrooms and by backroom deals,” Fetterman’s spokesperson Joe Calvello told The Daily Beast. “It’s going to be won by going to every county across the state and appealing to the actual voters. And I would say the proof is in the pudding.” Fetterman himself was not available for an interview.
In 2016, Fetterman’s Senate bid finished third out of four contestants in the state primary. He lacked much cash—and to some, experience. He was best known as the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small steel town that faced years of economic hardship. That small-town experience still guides much of his Senate campaign, which has been focused on small and rural counties that don’t typically receive political pit stops.
“There’s a lot of great towns in Pennsylvania that people living there feel like their best days were a generation ago or more,” Fetterman said in his campaign launch ad, leaning into his work rebuilding the economy in Braddock. “No one deserves to be abandoned.”
Fetterman won his lieutenant governor seat in 2018—elevating his profile to a state-wide stage. He’s maintained a fairly abnormal persona for a politician, with stunts like hanging a marijuana flag outside his Capitol office.
Lamb, for his part, was quick to argue that he and Fetterman actually aren’t that different in matters of policy, and he dismissed progressive-outsider claims as more gimmick than reality.
“It’s been very funny to us how the candidate who has the most money and who’s on his third statewide campaign and who holds a statewide elected office is always claiming to be, like, the anti-establishment candidate,” Lamb told The Daily Beast in an interview.
Fetterman and Lamb do have common ground on some policy issues, like defending abortion access, promoting a $15 minimum wage and boosting gun-control reforms. But they differ on issues like federal marijuana decriminalization, of which Fetterman is an adamant supporter and Lamb voted against in the House in 2020, citing regulatory concerns.
Fetterman has also expressed support for Medicare for All, a key tenet of progressive politics, though the issues section of his campaign site only refers to health care as a “human right” and makes no mention of Medicare for All proposals.
“I’ve had to vote on every single issue under the sun. So I have no room to hide these issues, but they do. And I just don’t think they’re acting like anti-establishment politicians if they’re afraid to differ from me and President Biden on policy,” Lamb said.
Still, so far, the moderate versus progressive monikers have stuck. And the perceived ability of Fetterman to tap into progressives has some thinking he’s the best to promote turnout across the state.
J.J. Balaban, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist, told The Daily Beast he didn’t know that the dynamic was as much “outsider or insider, but Lamb, he looks certainly more like a traditional politician.”
Fetterman, Balaban continued, “presents as someone who is different.”
T.J. Rooney, a former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, told The Daily Beast he’s seen this show before during the 2010 cycle in Pennsylvania. “It ends with us getting the shit kicked out of us,” he said.
That year, Republicans swept the midterm elections following former President Barack Obama’s first two years in office. The Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, former Rep. Joe Sestak, lost to now Sen. Pat Toomey (R), who’s retiring from the seat this term. The gubernatorial seat went to Republican Tom Corbett over Democrat Dan Onorato by 9 points.
Rooney says this election, which will be the first midterm of President Biden’s tenure, is bound to be tough. But “what makes it tougher is if you have progressives sitting on the sidelines,” he said.
Rooney said Fetterman could help prevent that possibility, hoping his pairing alongside potential Democratic nominee for governor Josh Shapiro could be a winning lineup. Lamb and Shapiro, he said, are “sending a similar message… and they look the same.” But he thinks a Fetterman-Shapiro ticket would diversify their appeal, pulling in the left-most wings of the party.
“This is a math problem. Politics is always a math problem,” he added.
There’s still time for the race to change. And Balaban cautioned the bulk of Pennsylvanians haven’t even started tuning in. “Most voters have not remotely started to engage in the race,” he said.
Ads have recently started to hit the airways as both candidates are looking to boost their visibility. Fetterman at the start of the year had $5.3 million on hand available to be used in the primary, compared to Lamb’s $2.3 million, according to the two candidates’ most recent campaign finance reports. Lamb’s super PAC is trying to make up the difference while the congressman remains undeterred by the prospect that his opponent could have more dollars to spare.
“[Voters] don’t need to see that you’re running two ads for every one that your opponent does if they like your message better,” Lamb said.
Both campaigns have avoided name checking each other or targeting one another’s vulnerabilities in ads so far, but Balaban suggested Lamb might be short on options as the primary gets closer.
“If you’re Connor Lamb, it’s hard to see how he makes up the gap without going negative,” he said. “Now, he might not do it. He might hope someone else does it for him. And it doesn’t mean that it’s going to work.”
But for now, Fetterman seems to be avoiding much heat. And even as Lamb racks up backing from established politicians and groups, Fetterman’s backers hope his lead among voters sticks.
“You have a puncher’s chance” with Fetterman, Rooney argued, in a cycle that’s “promised to be a punch in the face.”