ROSS TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA — “Lamb the Sham” is President Donald Trump’s go-to insult to wield against freshman Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb. But if the president hopes it will trigger an angry response from the candidate, he’s wrong.
Lamb, who will face off against Rep. Keith Rothfus (R) in Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 17th district, rarely mentions Trump by name on the campaign trail, preferring instead to keep his attention focused on local issues and, more broadly, on America.
“I am optimistic more than anything else because I believe in America,” Lamb told a packed room of about 50 people at a Democratic meet-and-greet and award ceremony in Ross Township last Friday. “I noticed when Joan and Eddie got their awards tonight, they had the good sense on this committee to put an American flag on those awards. They didn’t put a Democratic donkey right there in the middle. They put an American flag. We’re doing this for our country.”
Lamb told ThinkProgress that avoiding the topic of Trump “actually happened naturally.”
“I just want to talk about the issues that are on people’s minds and that they believe are most important,” Lamb said. “Most people I talked to … they didn’t want negative campaigning, they didn’t want a lot of rehashing of the past, they were like, ‘let’s look forward and tell me what you’re for.’”
The candidate’s emphasis on country over party stands in stark contrast to the seeming apathy of congressional leaders on, to use Lamb’s words, “the other side,” who have supported Trump despite numerous abuses of power and mounting scandals. It’s also a favorite strategy of many Democrats this election cycle. A recent report found that Republican midterm ads mention Trump about two times as often as Democratic ads.
“The people on the ballot are me and Representative Rothfus and we should be debating the issues and that’s what the election should be about,” Lamb said at a town hall in McKees Rocks earlier this month. “So I think when you see these commercials that are about all these other people who have nothing to do with western Pennsylvania, it comes back to the question, ‘are they running for the people of the 17th district or are they running for someone else’s ideas and agenda?’”
While Rothfus’ most recent ad doesn’t mention Trump (though it does feature his mother), the congressman has been joined by Vice President Mike Pence on the campaign trail. In June, Pence referred to Rothfus as a “great conservative” and lauded him for his support of Trump’s initiatives, including massive tax cuts that have overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy.
But it’s Lamb’s strategy that seems to be working. The race between Rothfus and Lamb was recently bumped from Democratic Toss-Up to Lean Democratic on the Cook Political Report. And a recent poll has Lamb leading Rothfus by double digits. This, despite the fact that Trump won the district by 2.5 points in 2016.
While the 17th district is bluer than the former 18th (where Lamb narrowly won the special election to replace GOP Rep. Tim Murphy in March, and where Trump won by a whopping 20 points), the area — which is made up of the post-industrial, working-class Beaver County, affluent suburbs of Allegheny County, and the well-to-do Cranberry Township in Butler County — is still considered Trump territory by political strategists.
“For Lamb to win, he’s gonna have to get some of those Democrats that crossed over, in particular in Beaver County,” Democratic strategist Mike Mikus, who is based in the area, told ThinkProgress. “He doesn’t have to win Beaver County, but Trump won Beaver County handily and, by being an anti-Trump candidate, it would make it harder for him to win in this district.”
Lamb is far from an anti-Trump candidate, having managed, instead, to sell himself as both progressive and conservative, a mashup that appeals to 17th district voters. A former Marine captain, Lamb is pro-gun, but he supports stronger background checks. He’s personally opposed to abortion, but has vowed not to vote for a 20-week abortion ban. He’s fiercely pro-union, but appeals to the social conservatism of western Pennsylvania’s labor groups by distancing himself from Washington elites, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
“I don’t think that he needs to bring Donald Trump into the argument,” Mikus added. “I think that he will benefit greatly in terms of what we’re seeing with the anti-Trump energy on our side, but I think it’s a wise decision to focus on kitchen table issues.”
Those issues, Lamb said, are “social security and Medicare, or health care prescription drugs, generally. These sort of pocketbook health care and pension issues that are making life tougher for people.”
“The sense I get from talking to people is that people know that health care is not an easy thing to fix, but they understand that the basic difference between our two parties is that we are at least trying to fix it,” he told ThinkProgress. “We’re trying to do something positive. Whereas, the other side has spent the last two years in office basically just destroying various parts of the health care system and taking health care away from people without doing anything constructive.”
During last week’s meet-and-greet, Lamb slammed the Trump administration (without saying “Trump administration,” of course) for refusing to defend the Affordable Care Act in court and for arguing that protections for people with pre-existing conditions are unconstitutional.
“Doubling down on our protections for people with pre-existing conditions is job number one. The Department of Justice has walked away from those people,” he said. “They feel abandoned and rightfully. That uncertainty is horrible.”
Voters in the district who spoke to ThinkProgress last week said health care is a key reason why they will be casting their ballots in favor of Lamb come November.
“I’m on Medicare and that’s being cut,” said 17th district voter Janet Fesq, adding that, as a woman, she’s also concerned about protections for people with pre-existing conditions. “How many women have low thyroid? That’s going to be considered a pre-existing condition. Pregnancy — it’s pre-existing. How many women are going to get out from under that one? The whole thing is totally illogical.”