How a Pennsylvania Democrat plans to win a district that Trump won by 20 points

Lamb has bucked the national party in an effort to flip a House seat in Trump country. It just might work.

Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, greets supporters after speaking at a campaign rally. CREDIT: Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, greets supporters after speaking at a campaign rally. CREDIT: Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

MOON TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA — If you’re wondering who Conor Lamb is, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts offers this summary: a “God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, social-security-believing, healthcare-greeting, sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat.” 

At a Sunday afternoon rally at the Greene County Fairgrounds, Roberts was on hand to generate enthusiasm for Lamb, who’s running in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district against the Trump-backed Republican Rick Saccone. Lamb has already been the beneficiary of no end of buzz. Roberts likened a vote for Lamb to the Biblical story of Moses standing up to Pharaoh and to Gandhi’s fight against British rule. At the same event, a Lamb supporter told BuzzFeed the last time she saw people this excited about a candidate was John Kennedy. Even supporters of Lamb’s opponent have nice things to say: one attendee of Saturday’s Trump rally described Lamb in an interview with ThinkProgress as “personable and charismatic… just like Barack Obama.”

Many in Western Pennsylvania are hopeful that Lamb is the future. The young former Marine and federal prosecutor has bucked the national party, promising voters that he won’t support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker if elected, nor will he support a ban on assault weapons. Lamb also says that while he is personally pro-life, he would not cast a vote for a 20-week abortion ban.

Just 18 months ago, Trump won Pennsylvania’s 18th district by 20 points. Now, Lamb is locked in a widely-hyped special election to replace Rep. Tim Murphy (R), who resigned in recent months when his scandalous affair found its way into the headlines. (Murphy, an anti-abortion Republican, reportedly asked his mistress to get an abortion when he believed she was pregnant.)

The seat, tucked deep within Trump country, seemed safe for Republicans — until suddenly, it didn’t. In the weeks leading up to the special election, polls have shown Lamb gaining ground on Saccone. A recent Emerson poll from early March even had Lamb leading by three.

The hype is somewhat overblown, however, considering the circumstances. If Lamb pulls off the upset win in Tuesday’s special election, he’ll only serve for nine months before having to run again in November’s midterm elections. And depending how the ongoing fight over Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered Congressional districts plays out, there’s a decent chance that the 18th district won’t even exist by this time next year.

But Lamb’s supporters aren’t thinking about that. They’re only thinking about Tuesday — and they are, to borrow a phrase, fired up. 

On Saturday afternoon, two Lamb campaign volunteers, Lynne Hughes and Mike Weis, ventured to the 18th district’s Bethel Park neighborhood, where they knocked on doors for the Democrat. Hughes first started doing political organizing work after the 2016 election, putting together a Mondays-with-Murphy campaign, where she joined a throng outside Murphy’s office every Monday demanding that he hold a town hall.

Now, she tells ThinkProgress, she’s so singularly focused on the special election that she hasn’t even thought beyond Tuesday. By the numbers, the 18th district is actually home to more Democrats than Republicans, the result of strong organized labor in the area, but Hughes’ biggest concern is that those Democrats won’t show up.

“I will drag them to the polls,” she joked. But Hughes and Weis both say they’ve seen many people excited by the special election. Both say that they’ve met one-time Trump voters in the area who now support Lamb. Perhaps more importantly, they say that women in particular have seemed very energized by the upcoming election.

“I really do think a lot of it is the misogyny of the 2016 election, both the loss by Hillary, the first potential woman president, the fury against Pelosi, and all the crap Trump has gotten away with with his years of womanizing and mistreatment and God knows what all,” Weis said. “After he won the election, it certainly feels like he energized a lot of women. All of the rallies and marches and meetings I went to, it’s 70 percent women.”

Hughes agreed, noting that Weis is actually one of the few men who have consistently shown up at Indivisible meetings.

“This special election is being organized with women around kitchen tables,” Hughes said. “It’s interesting because women have a broader network of who they know.”

While they canvassed Saturday, both volunteers talked about how they saw Lamb as a special sort of candidate, insisting that they’d seen his message working with voters in the district.

“A lot of Democrats are disillusioned with the party and they can’t be blamed for some of that,” Weis, who described himself as a “semi-retired freelance photographer,” said. But Lamb is different.

“I don’t think he’s ever mentioned Trump,” Weis said, and Hughes added that she has hardly ever heard him mention Saccone either. Instead, he’s focusing on a message the two volunteers said people are excited about: protecting social security and Medicare, fighting for labor unions, and fighting for affordable health care.

“I am quite pleased with his message,” Hughes said.

But Hughes did admit Saturday that she was originally upset by Lamb’s stance on the assault weapons ban, which the Democrat stood by following the recent Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead at a Florida high school.

“He pissed a lot of people off,” she said, but added that she does think it’s the right stance for the district. Weis agreed.

Hughes said her personal concerns were quieted after a friend of hers who organizes with Moms Demand Action, a gun control group, offered up complimentary words after meeting with Lamb. Nevertheless, many of Lamb supporters who turned out for his Sunday event told ThinkProgress that they supported much stricter gun control positions than Lamb does.

“I think we could do a little better on background checks and also on assault weapons,” Dwayne Thomas, a United Mine Workers member said in an interview with ThinkProgress Sunday. “I think they ought to be banned. And as a liberal, I can say that. I am a gun owner, I have guns for hunting, but I don’t own an assault rifle.”

Another rally attendee, Bonnie Rankin, said she also thought banning assault rifles would be a good step, but said it doesn’t bother her that Lamb doesn’t support doing so.

“I think that is an important issue, but he may know more about that than me,” Rankin said. “I do trust him.”

Thomas and Rankin, both of whom said they were lifelong Democrats, explained that other issues were driving their support for Lamb. For Thomas, it was his support for Medicare and Medicaid, as well as safeguarding Social Security and his promise to protect unions and union workers. Rankin, on the other hand, said she admired Lamb’s independent spirit.

“I think he’s going to work for the people, where Tim Murphy didn’t work and didn’t listen to the people,” she said Sunday. “He had his own agenda and he was going to follow the Republican agenda. I think [Lamb] will work for the people whether they’re Republican or Democrat if it’s for a good cause.”

Uncle Jesse Outside Lamb's Rally Sunday. CREDIT: Addy Baird
Uncle Jesse Outside Lamb's Rally Sunday. CREDIT: Addy Baird

Another Lamb supporter and union member who only identified himself as “Uncle Jesse” (“That’s it,” he said, “nobody knows me by my real name”) shared a similar sentiment.

“Conor Lamb… works for everybody,” Uncle Jesse said. “He’ll work with both parties, he’s not a fool.”

That independent streak can be frustrating for some Democrats, Hughes said Saturday.

“I don’t agree with Conor on everything. Sometimes he gives frustratingly honest answers because he’s not like a polished politician or anything, and he just tells you, straight up,” she said. “He explains it in a way where you’re like, okay.”

Hughes added that she knows that Lamb isn’t out on the campaign trail making different promises to different groups of people. She appreciates the consistency, knowing that even if she doesn’t always agree with Lamb, she knows he’s sticks by what he says.

That Lamb isn’t a polished politician, Uncle Jesse said Sunday, is exactly what he loves about Lamb.

“He’s normal,” he said.

Lamb, seems to be connecting with voters for that very reason: Despite his impressive resume, all the Kennedy-level hype, the Obama comparisons, and the sense that the weight of the Democratic party is sitting on his shoulders, Lamb does somehow seem normal.

When he speaks, he doesn’t sound practiced. He knows how to snap a selfie, he’s comfortable in jeans, he speaks the language of coal miners and union members. If he wins on Tuesday, his campaign — one that has shunned national Democrats while embracing guns and unions — could be the blueprint for how the party can win in Trump country.

But Rankin did say there was one other important thing to note about the man who might be the first Democrat to win in the 18th district in more than 15 years.

“He’s young,” she said with a smile. “Young blood.”