The Conor Lamb Victory: lessons for Democrats

A recount is probably still coming, but it sure looks like Democrat Conor Lamb won a narrow victory in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump carried by 19% in 2016, and where Democrats had not even fielded a candidate in 2014 and 2016.

The victory kept alive the expectation of a Democratic wave in this fall’s nationwide elections. Cook Political Report says:

there are 118 Republican-held districts less friendly to the GOP than PA’s 18th CD (R+11), including 17 where the GOP incumbent isn’t running in the fall and an additional vacancy in Ohio’s 12th CD that will be settled by an August 7 special election that could become problematic for Republicans.

Democrats need to flip only 24 seats to gain control of the House. Cook says “of course not” to the theory that Dems could gain 118 seats. (As with Doug Jones in Alabama, part of the victory is due to Democrats just running a better candidate. That won’t happen everywhere.) But their analysis of the entire run of special elections indicates that Democrats are running 9 points (not 11) better than previous results would lead you to expect. If that holds up, it still gives them a huge win in November.

The battle to interpret the race began almost immediately. Republicans, who previously had described Lamb as “far left“, claimed that Lamb had won by looking like a Republican: He criticized Nancy Pelosi, didn’t rail at Trump, didn’t back gun control, supported Trump’s tariffs, and said that his personal beliefs were pro-life. This was a fairly bogus argument, though: Lamb ran against Trump’s tax cut, which was the only major piece of legislation Republicans passed this year; on abortion he says “we defend the law as it is“; the NRA spent money to defeat him; he wants to fix ObamaCare rather than repeal it; and he was more aggressively pro-union than most Democratic candidates.

Progressive and centrist Democrats both began spinning the race as well. Centrists are arguing that Democrats should nominate moderate candidates who can appeal to Republicans fed up with Trump. Progressives are arguing that Lamb’s victory depended on getting a high turnout from the Democratic base, so Democrats need to stand for policies that will energize that base.

It would be nice to have exit polls to help us sort these claims out, but there weren’t any. So both the convince-swing-voters and the turn-out-the-base theories are plausible. We don’t know for sure whether Trump voters changed their minds and voted Democratic, or Clinton voters (or even some who thought Clinton wasn’t liberal enough to vote for) came out to vote while Trump voters stayed home.

In some sense it doesn’t matter, because Lamb’s policy choices play well under both theories: Maybe he got votes from moderate Republicans (like college educated women in Pittsburgh suburbs). Or maybe marginal Republican voters stayed home because Lamb wasn’t scary enough to motivate them to vote against him.

My take on all this shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read what I wrote about Alaska last month and Montana last week: Democrats should run candidates who match their districts. I’m against nationalizing the election around a progressive agenda, like Medicare-for-all or impeachment or banning assault rifles or a $15 minimum wage. But I’m for candidates running against the Democratic establishment in places where the Democratic establishment is unpopular, and I think we need to challenge Democrats who are more conservative than their voters. Just because I like a Conor Lamb in PA-18 doesn’t mean I oppose a progressive challenge to Diane Feinstein. California is a different electorate.

As for what the Democratic Party should stand for, I think it should stand for principles rather than specific pieces of legislation. ( derides this approach as “a list of desirable goals, rather than explicit pledges”. Yes, that’s exactly what I want from the national party. Let local candidates craft their own explicit pledges.) Here’s what I mean: We want more and more people to have health insurance, with universal coverage as the ultimate goal. We want to shift the tax burden back towards the rich and corporations. We want to protect the safety net, fight climate change, invest in education, welcome immigrants and refugees, make our guns laws less crazy, keep government out of Americans’ sexual and reproductive decisions, protect minority rights, and end mass incarceration.

That’s far from “not standing for anything”, and it makes a stark contrast with Republicans, but it also gives local candidates room to adapt to their voters. It makes room for Bernie-ish candidates in liberal districts, but also for candidates like Conor Lamb and Doug Jones. Candidates in Chicago or San Francisco can run on Medicare for All, while candidates in Alabama or rural Pennsylvania can defend Medicaid and ObamaCare.

Beyond that, I draw some more tactical lessons:

  • Democrats in districts that Trump carried don’t have to run against Trump, because Trump is already on everybody’s mind anyway. Anti-Trump resistance voters are going to come out and vote, whether you whip them up or not. Meanwhile, some Trump voters might stay home if you don’t insult or goad them. Best of all is when Trump himself makes the race about Trump, as he did in PA-18: The Democrat focuses on local lunch-pail issues, while Trump talks about himself.
  • The racist/populist vote is probably lost to Democrats (and good riddance), but there’s also a non-racist/populist vote they can get. Lamb’s optics helped him there: He’s a young fresh face who represents you, not an ideology or his party’s establishment.
  • Not everybody needs to have been a captain in the Marines, but new candidates need a non-political backstory. They shouldn’t be poli-sci majors whose resume is a series of congressional-staff jobs.
  • Unions may be a fading force in American politics, but there are places where they still matter. In the same way that Republicans can’t really run away from Trump, I don’t think Democrats can run away from unions. The anti-union vote is going to go against you anyway, so you might as well give pro-union voters some reason to support you.
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  • Josh  On March 19, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Not every candidate needs to be a Marine, but looking at Lamb and also Jones- if you can preemptively counter the stock “soft on crime”/“unpatriotic” rhetoric that Republicans love to deploy (see Dukakis, Kerry), particularly in districts that lean red, it certainly can’t hurt.

    • Paul Bradford  On March 19, 2018 at 10:39 am

      Running veterans certainly can’t hurt. But John Kerry was decorated in Viet Nam, and ran against a President who avoided the war, whose campaign then smeared Kerry’s service, turning it into a negative instead of a positive.

  • jeffmariotte  On March 19, 2018 at 11:00 am

    I’ve had disagreements with progressives about backing more centrist candidates (as an example, Kirsten Synema here in AZ). I don’t think a far-left candidate can win in red Arizona, but I think Synema has a real shot because she does lean toward the middle. Sure, there are areas where I wish she was more liberal–but the most important issue, to me, is electability. If we can take back the House and Senate, then Democrats run the committees, Democrats can bring legislation to the floor or block it, Democrats will have subpoena power. Whether any individual Dem is “right” on every issue matters much less than which party controls Congress. Those who demand ideological purity risk leaving us with Republicans in power, and I don’t think the country can afford that.

  • Bill Gilboe  On March 19, 2018 at 1:17 pm


  • Linda M Barker  On March 19, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    Did you mean to say, in paragraph eight, that it doesn’t mean you “oppose” a progressive challenge to Diane Feinstein?  Or did you actually mean to say – it doesn’t mean you support a progressive challenge to Diane Feinstein? Thank you for your columns, I appreciate having the opportunity to read them.  Linda BarkerA UU in New Mexico

    Sent by Galaxy smartphone.

    • weeklysift  On March 19, 2018 at 4:41 pm

      I meant “oppose”. I supported the centrist in Pennsylvania-18, but I can also support a progressive in California.

  • HAT  On March 19, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    Just wish I could like this more than once. Thanks for the sanity.

  • Anonymous  On March 19, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    Yup, run everywhere. Candidates should fit their districts – that’s who they represent. They don’t represent the national party.

    Loved your blog post about Alaska.

  • LdeG  On March 20, 2018 at 9:45 am

    “pop·u·list 1. a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people.”
    Thank you for pointing out the non-racist/nationalist populist vote. “Populist” seems to have become a synonym for racist/nationalist these days. The national liberal media have become disdainful of “ordinary people” almost everywhere, but particularly in Appalachia.

    I live about 50 miles south of Conor Lamb’s district, in an area that is similar. Candidates do need to match their districts, not a national agenda. And we need to remember that people who identify as “liberal” are at an all-time high – and that high is only about 25% of the voters.

    Every single precinct in Lamb’s district shifted Democrat – Pittsburgh suburbs and rural coal and gas counties alike. He still lost heavily in the rural precincts, just not as heavily as Clinton in 2016. But if you look at 2008, that area was evenly split between Obama and McCain. There were two southern West Virginia coal counties that Obama won, by a clear margin, in 2008. Obama was a populist candidate. Obama and the Democrats were heavily damaged by the “war on coal” campaign, which convinced people he was not a populist. Clinton didn’t even try, and is still talking trash about the ignorance of the vast middle (politically and geographically) who didn’t vote for her, and the cleverness of the people on the coasts and in the cities who did. It is unfortunately an attitude shared by many liberals/progressives, and it really needs to stop.

    • Anonymous  On March 20, 2018 at 8:57 pm

      One of the things that I like about It Starts Today/Subscribe to a Better Congress ( is that they let every district pick their own candidates in their primaries, and then after the primaries IST/SBC funds ALL the Democratic candidates in the general election. If the candidate is good enough for their district, the candidate is good enough for them. People in New York City might not like the candidate that wins the primary in Appalachia, and vice-versa, but that doesn’t matter. The candidate who wins the primary gets funding – in every Congressional district and every Senate seat that has a race this year.


  • By Waves | The Weekly Sift on March 19, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “The Conor Lamb Victory: lessons for Democrats” and “Who Are Those Guys?” which covers some of the new faces in major Trump […]

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