There’s a lot to like about Conor Lamb, on paper anyway. The Democratic challenger in Pennsylvania’s special election presents as a rare breed; a white male former Marine gang prosecuting attorney from Pittsburgh, Lamb is all but a specter of what once was in a no longer populist, working man’s Democratic Party that now caters to Wall Street, childless purple-haired freaks, angry POC, and dregs from the 3rd world – the so-called Coalition of the Ascendant.
Lamb is an uncommon candidate in an even more uncommon district. 96% white and 84% urban, Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district encompasses much of the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh, as well as the urban centers of Monroeville and Greensburg. PA-18 also cuts across largely rural Westmoreland and Washington counties, both of which are considered to be moderately populated Republican strongholds. Registered Democrats outweigh registered Republicans in PA-18 by roughly 70,000, however the district has been trending strongly Republican for the past few decades.
Trump won PA-18 by nearly 20 points in 2016.
For these reasons, Conor Lamb is the quintessential anachronistic Democratic candidate. Among his chief issues are the opioid crisis, infrastructure, working class jobs, reforming student loans, and affordable healthcare. Lamb is vocally anti-Pelosi and barely mentions President Trump by name. This is a noticeable departure from the single-threaded just-attack-Trump electoral strategy of the national party and a feat made even more impressive by the fact that special elections tend to be a referendum on the sitting president.
By contrast, his Republican opponent is an aging boomer social conservative and former interrogation consultant at Abu Ghraib, who doesn’t even mention the opioid crisis anywhere on his campaign website. A constituent, the mother of an addict, recently asked Saccone what he would do to help her son. His tonedeaf reply was to ask her what other government programs she would cut to fund a drug addiction program. How conservative. Strong on all the issues of yesteryear’s GOP that nobody cares about and weak or simply MIA on the issues people do, Rick Saccone is just the sort of underwhelming candidate the Very Official and Super Serious GOP Candidate Recruitment Taskforce should be sprinting away from at 100 mph.
The utterly ridiculous juxtaposition of these two candidates – on one hand a white Democrat who embodies many of the central tenets of Trump’s decidedly populist working class agenda that propelled him to victory in Pennsylvania in 2016, and on the other, an unremarkable milquetoast Republican whose neoconservative bonafides are second only to that of Bill Kristol or Erick Erickson – explains both the close polling and disparity in dollars in a soon-to-be-decided contest on March 13th.
In an R+11 district that Trump, Romney, and McCain all won by ~20 points, the latest polling shows the race within single digits, with Saccone only slightly ahead. In terms of dollars, Saccone’s campaign has been out-raised by Lamb 4:1 (and by 20:1 in terms of small dollar donors), while 3rd party groups for Saccone have outspent similar groups for Lamb by 9:1. Unable or unwilling to field a decent contender, the GOP is literally pissing in the wind by subsidizing a lackluster candidate with outside money, trying to eek out a win.
While the dichotomy outlined above is enough to flip even a deep red district such as PA-18, perhaps the most important reason Saccone isn’t miles ahead of Lamb (or vice versa) in the polls is the one issue we know is paramount to all others. Lamb doesn’t talk about immigration at all – for good reason, which you’ll see here in a minute – saying he wants to keep the issues local, not wanting to be distracted by national (and tribal) politics. It took a little digging (which is of course shrewdly by design), but I finally found a glaring reason for the average white working class voter in southwestern Pennsylvania not to like Conor Lamb. Buried in a Politico article from a few weeks ago:
Lamb’s option 3 is just a high verbal IQ way of saying AllElevenMillion™, a false choice in which he believes 90% of Americans are in agreement. Of course we know this is patently absurd – and Conor does too – which is why he never mentions immigration in any of his stump speeches. It’s not even on his website. There’s no way Lamb would ever buck the party on this issue, but if he did, he’d probably win by 20 points.
Ironically, so could Saccone. Frustratingly, not talking about immigration seems to be the play being made by him as well. For a man who refers to himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump”, immigration talk has been noticeably absent from his rhetoric on the trail. Quite the canary in the coal mine. Unlike his opponent, Saccone does list immigration reform as one of his issues, however in the most feeble-minded and vapid way humanly possible:
Intense. In a race that’s running 15 points in the wrong direction, it’s all going to come down to voter sentiment and turnout. A win for the GOP will be significant only in that it will deny the left a much-needed propaganda victory. Neither Lamb nor Saccone will be around long, as PA-18 is going up in smoke as a result of the PA Supreme Court’s newly redrawn district map that will take effect after this election.
For a Republican Party that demands it must “run candidates who can win” in the face of rising nationalism, they are doing anything but. Also by design. A GOP loss in Pennsylvania would be nothing new for a party that, when left to its own devices, has a strong penchant for losing. The winning playbook has already been written: voters, especially in the Rust Belt, want fewer immigrants (illegal and legal), less foreign intervention, less “free trade”, more middle class jobs, and drug and crime free neighborhoods and schools. Saccone hardly touches on any of those things. Lamb makes inroads with some of them, albeit only superficially. Voters deserve more than just a false dichotomy erected by the establishment. Or do we? If these things are desired, then they must be demanded, and we must play an active role in making those demands. We’re simply running out of time.