Conor Lamb’s narrow, declared victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district special election may or may not ultimately hold up. Regardless, there are some take-aways from Tuesday’s results.
For the first time since Donald Trump was elected president, Democrats appear to have won a congressional special election. In each of their previous attempts, Democrats ran progressive candidates, promising that the “resistance” to Trump would carry them to victory. They lost every race.
This time they tried a different approach. Democrats nominated a young, Marine and former federal prosecutor with matinee idol good looks. He came from a long line of Pittsburgh area pols and had strong ties to organized labor.
Conor began his campaign by running as far away from the far left of his party as he could. He immediately went so far as to say he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi if he got elected. His campaign material pictured him firing an AR-15. He positioned himself as not only pro-gun but also pro-life (at least “personally” so) He was defined as a prettier version of Joe Manchin, the U.S. Senator from West Virginia which borders the 18th both to the south and west, closer to Trump than to Pelosi and Schumer.
Lamb’s strategy worked. This election should never have been close. While it is true that it is still registered Democratic, it’s been voting Republican for decades. President Trump won there by 20 points just 16 months ago. It was no aberration. Mitt Romney carried the district by 17 points. In the previous two congressional races the democrats didn’t even field a candidate. The last time they did, he lost by nearly 30 points.
On the other side of Lamb was Rick Saccone, a stalwart conservative state legislator. He wrested the Republican nomination in a rough-and-tumble “conferee” process. He won the nomination on a second ballot. With it went some dashed ambitions, bruised egos and hard feelings. Unfortunately for him his campaign wasn’t able to heal those wounds as quickly and extensively as they hoped.
There was a spoiler in the race. A Republican turned Libertarian managed to get enough votes to make the difference as the race now stands.
Early in the campaign, Lamb focused like a laser on raising the money necessary to paint the picture of himself he wanted voters to see. He outraised Saccone by a wide margin.
As a result, Lamb was able to deliver his own message. He used well-crafted ads to portray himself tied to the Trump voters in the district he sought to attract.
Meanwhile Saccone was forced to rely on outside forces to deliver his message. That meant that, because of federal laws prohibiting “coordination” of such efforts, he didn’t control his own message.
Millions of dollars poured in to boost him, but his story wasn’t being told. Instead, ads like the “Nancy had a little lamb” fell flat and even backfired.
By the time Saccone was able to get his own ads on the air, the story had already been written.
Regardless of how this special election turns out, it wasn’t a banner day for Republicans. But it wasn’t exactly cause for ecstasy on the part of the Democrats.
First, whoever won Tuesday’s contest took a Pyrrhic victory. The district they will represent vanished on the new map drawn by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Neither Lamb nor Saccone live in the newly configured district.
Second, mid-terms are never kind to the party that holds the White House. With a thin margin in the House, Republicans have a lot to defend.
To be successful, they will need to provide a unifying theme for their candidates based on economic growth and prosperity. They’ll also need to localize each race, tying their candidates to the voters and particular interests of each little sliver of America.
In the campaign for the 18th, Rick Saccone didn’t run away from Donald Trump. Conor Lamb ran away from Nancy Pelosi.
Look for other Democrats, especially across the “rust belt” that delivered the presidency to Donald Trump, to emulate Conor Lamb. That can’t be good news for Nancy Pelosi and the San Francisco progressives.