HOUSTON, Pa. — “Jesus always started out by going and being with a certain group of people,” says Conor Lamb as we’re winding down hilly back roads to the Washington County Gun Show. It snowed a few inches in Southwestern Pennsylvania last night and, other than the highways we’re avoiding, nothing’s been plowed. While I’m silently saying Hail Marys as the campaign staffer driving whips around farms and fields, Lamb calmly continues explaining how his faith informs his politics.
Jesus, Lamb tells me, tried to get to know people as people before he tried to win them over with arguments. He “wasn’t asking people where they stood on abortion before they came and sat down with them.”
Lamb, the Democratic candidate in a neck-and-neck special election on March 13, has to hope the people of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District will likewise listen to what he has to say before judging him by his party affiliation. In this part of the state, where highway billboards sport Bible verses and the start of deer hunting season is a holiday, Democratic politicians tend to flunk doctrinal tests. Even though registered Democrats technically outnumber Republicans here by 70,000, Trump won the district by nearly 20 percentage points. Mitt Romney and John McCain posted similar margins. Former Rep. Tim Murphy, the outspoken anti-abortion Republican whose seat Lamb is running to fill—Murphy resigned after reports that he encouraged his married mistress to get an abortion after a pregnancy scare—won eight straight elections, the first six by double-digit margins and the last two uncontested.
Lamb, a square-jawed 33-year-old Marine Corps officer who resigned from his job as a federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh to run, has a chance to upend the district’s politics—as long as he can avoid being labeled a liberal without discouraging the district’s not inconsiderable Democrat base from turning out. A devout Catholic, Lamb is pro-union and pro-gun, backs bipartisan deals for fixing Obamacare and the nation’s infrastructure, wants more job training and less college debt, and says he’s pro-fracking but pro-environment, too. And he’s betting that this mix of economic populism and moderate social politics can win the predominantly blue collar district. (Full disclosure: Lamb and I both played rugby at the University of Pennsylvania. We overlapped his senior year, 2005-06.)
Lamb’s opponent, state Rep. Rick Saccone—best known for sponsoring a bill that would have required posting “In God We Trust” on every school in the Commonwealth—has a simpler message: He was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” and is an enthusiastic supporter of the president’s agenda. But there are signs the president’s popularity is waning here. A Monmouth University poll showed 42 percent of voters in the 18th strongly disapprove of his performance, compared with just 37 percent who strongly approve. When asked if they support the president’s efforts in office, 48 percent said yes, 47 percent said no. Trump’s endorsement of Saccone made 5 percent of respondents say they were more likely to back Saccone; it made 8 percent say they were more likely to support Lamb.
Given these shifting politics, political observers say Lamb has a tight, but plausible, path to victory in March. He needs suburban women with college educations and moderate social views—both Democrats and Republicans wavering in their party allegiances post Trump—to back him big (which is probably why he praises nurses and teachers in the same breath as veterans and cops). He also needs the district’s 86,000 union households to vote their economic interests, and for enough of the rural, working-class Republican base to find him sufferable to stay home.
The Republican Party sees this path too—and is pouring resources, both money and manpower, into this Pennsylvania district ahead of March 13. So far, Republican super PACs have thrown millions into the race, opening canvassing offices and flooding Pittsburgh’s airwaves with ads calling Lamb a liberal. Trump himself made a visit to support Saccone—as have Ivanka Trump and Vice President Mike Pence—and says he will return.
After all, the stakes are enormous. As the polls narrow—the latest has Lamb just 3 points behind Saccone—this race is being closely watched by political seismologists for early tremors of an oncoming blue tsunami in the November midterms. If Lamb, a virtual unknown five months ago, can win this once seemingly impregnable Republican stronghold—one that so overwhelmingly supported Trump just 16 months ago, then other Democratic candidates across the country can do the same.
On this frigid Saturday in early January, Lamb has just wrapped up a rally at an American Legion in tiny Houston, Pennsylvania, where around 70 supporters braved snow-covered roads to hear him speak. But the labor leaders and left-leaning vets that filled the hall are already members of Lamb’s growing flock of disciples. There’s more missionary work to be done.
“My faith tells me where to go and get started and what kind of sympathy to have for people once you get there,” Lamb says. Today, his faith is leading him to the gun show in Washington County. Lamb has plotted a path to victory that runs through places like this, where he can evangelize to voters like Ken Gedeon, who is idling beside a display case full of World War II-era sidearms.
Gedeon is a registered Democrat and an avid hunter. The retiree from Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania, is upset at Saccone for supporting a bill to allow the use of semi-automatic rifles during deer season. “When I grew up, I was taught: You shoot one shot,” Gedeon says. “You don’t come get a second or third shot.”
Gedeon voted for Trump. “I felt good voting for who I voted for,” he adds, unprompted. And he still feels good about his vote. “Yes, 100 percent,” he says. “No qualms about him at all.”
But Gedeon votes for the man, not the party. After Lamb introduces himself, Gedeon wastes no time sharing his displeasure with Saccone, practically a neighbor, for never asking him about the hunting bill. Lamb asserts he’s pro-hunter and pro-gun, says he would’ve given Gedeon a call, and asks for his support. (Years ago, at an alumni gathering when Lamb was still a Marine Corps JAG and I was in law school, he and I got into it over gun control, where he questioned why the vast majority of responsible gun owners should have their freedoms burdened by the sins of a few criminals, and the practical improbability of any law managing to significantly reduce the number of guns.) Gedeon ends the short conversation with a handshake, says he hasn’t made up his mind yet, but he’s open to voting Democrat in the special election.
“We can get him,” Lamb says confidently a few minutes later as we walk toward a Marines-themed display case full of combat knives. If he can meet voters, and talk to them—really talk to them honestly and rationally, and not get bogged down by partisan labels and national politics—Lamb’s sure he can win this thing.
Take, for example, immigration. In a district dotted with shuttered steel mills, Lamb believes voters will come around to his position if he can hold an honest, earnest discussion. “I think too often the whole issue gets talked about as if we were writing from a blank slate, or we can pick whatever we want, or the government is all powerful,” Lamb says. “None of which is true.”
There are only four real options on immigration, Lamb explains. One, try to kick every undocumented immigrant out. Two, legalize the Dreamers—undocumented immigrants brought here as children—but try to kick out all the other migrants here illegally. Three, “the Dreamers obviously should stay,” and “the other 11½ million people, who knows how they got here, but they’re here, they’re in the shadows, that’s not really helping anybody, [so] let’s find a way to pull them out [of the shadows.]” And then there’s four: no change, continue the current policies.
“I really believe that if you present those four options to people, 90 percent choose option three,” he says, adding that he also supports increased border security, but at ports of entry, not a wall.
Lamb also believes voters can distinguish between a politician who is pro-coal worker—like he is, backing a federal guaranty miners’ pensions—rather than just pro-coal. The lost mining jobs aren’t coming back, Lamb says. “We have to get real about what the options are, and make sure the economy is diverse,” which means he’s not ready to trash the Clean Air Act just yet.
And Lamb trusts voters can accept that he’s anti-abortion, personally, but respects that choice is the law of the land.
Without naming Trump, Lamb is taking him head-on, stylistically if not substantively (the candidate is quick to say he’s eager to work on issues like infrastructure and opioids with the president). While Trump and his detractors trade competing narrative volleys, armed with alternative sets of facts to back their differing opinions, Lamb is betting his campaign on his ability to marshal objective truth to cut through the noise and sway voters.
But Lamb knows no one will listen to his well-argued points if the district’s 93-percent white, predominantly working-class residents dismiss him as just another liberal elitist before he can even open his mouth. “FDR said one time that the true test of government was that people wanted to know that their government walked on the same side of the street that they did,” Lamb says. “So, that’s the impression I want people to be left with: Not necessarily what my policy papers say, just that I’m accessible and that I’m one of them—that they can always find me, and trust me to at least tell them the truth.”
It’s a campaign strategy that hinges on how Lamb interacts with voters—something he does pretty well for a novice. He tends to speak with deep resolve in his voice—even his questions seem to end in periods. Like a lot of politicians, Lamb is tall—6-foot-3—but he has a habit of leaning in and jutting his head forward a bit when he talks to voters, as if he’s been drawn in by whatever you have to say. He’ll repeat your name before the conversation’s end, and make a lame joke at his own expense about getting lost once in your home town. The body language, the call backs, the self-deprecation all instill the sense that he’s really listening—a useful trick here, where voters have long felt forgotten.
If Lamb does retail politics like a natural, it might be because he comes from a political family. Lamb was born and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh to a family of Irish Catholic Democrats. His grandfather, Tom, was the Democratic majority leader in the state Senate and his uncle, Michael, is Pittsburgh’s controller. After high school at all-boys Central Catholic, Lamb moved across the state to go to the University of Pennsylvania, where he stayed for law school. After Penn, Lamb eschewed big law for the Marine Corps, which commissioned him as a Judge Advocate in Okinawa, Japan, despite Lamb’s request to go into infantry. (“You went to Penn Law,” Lamb remembers being told, “I can make anybody an infantry officer, I need you to be a lawyer.”)
He counts a Lasallian Christian Brother among his closest friends. The two like to critique Sunday liturgy the way movie buffs discuss an actor’s performance, picking apart not just what was said in the homily, but how it was delivered. Such careful focus on how a priest can enliven and update material that’s 2,000 years old has paid off on the trail, where Lamb tends to deliver short, lively speeches heavy on patriotism and optimism and light on legislative proposals, leaving the longer policy discussions for one-on-one chats.
He’s not afraid to throw some punches, though. As a federal prosecutor, Lamb directed a righteous fury at “morally bankrupt” drug dealers and gun runners. On the campaign trail, it’s mostly Saccone and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan who draw his opprobrium. After the American Legion campaign rally, Lamb grants a series of interviews, fielding questions about abortion, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Trump. For Lamb, nothing good can come from those lines of inquiry, and so he deflects. “I’m not running against the president, I’m running against Rick Saccone,” Lamb likes to say, pivoting to a litany of his opponent’s shortcomings. “He votes against education funding, he voted against Narcan, the thing that saves people’s lives, and he’s gonna have some explaining about his support for Paul Ryan, who now wants to come after Medicare and Social Security.”
Lamb has also run heavily on the Republican tax cuts, calling them a “complete betrayal of the middle class.” So too have the super PACs backing Saccone. Their attack on Lamb can be summed up as, “He’s a liberal who opposes the tax cuts and would support Nancy Pelosi.” The truth is more complicated—Lamb has actually called on Pelosi to step down from Democratic leadership—but it’s difficult to say whether voters will even get to hear those protestations over the massive amounts of super PAC attack ads asserting otherwise. Republican PACs have already spent $4.7 million in support of Saccone since Murphy resigned in October. That’s double what Murphy had to fundraise in any of his races in the 18th.
While the Republicans are trying to make all politics national, Lamb’s trying to keep things local. He has foresworn super PAC support and is keeping the fired-up national Democratic groups at arms-length. According to the Washington Post, Republican-linked groups have outspent their Democratic rivals here 17-to-1.
His campaign says it’s a deliberate move—that he’s worried that outside PAC support would boomerang and bolster the accusations that he’s just another liberal Democrat. His campaign maintains it doesn’t want to fall into the same trap Jon Ossoff did in Georgia, where national groups flooded in and turned the first special election after 2016 into a referendum on the two national parties instead of two individuals running for Congress.
Lamb, who managed to raise $560,000 in just two months last year and has spent nearly a million so far in campaign ads, feels he can personally raise enough money to keep the race close, especially given his opponent’s reputation as a weak fundraiser. Saccone raised just $214,000 last year, including $42,000 transferred from a Senate campaign he abandoned to seek the 18thseat, and his campaign has spent less than $100,000 on ads. (Saccone’s campaign did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
Lamb has recently accepted outside help from some prominent Democrats, but only those who fit the mold: white, Catholic, pro-union. Rep. Joe Kennedy III made a campaign stop, and Rep. Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for leadership, has sent fundraising appeals on Lamb’s behalf. So, too, did Randy Bryce, the Democratic ironworker challenging Paul Ryan in Wisconsin. Joe Biden will make a visit and his American Possibilities PAC sent out a fundraising letter on Lamb’s behalf.
Some of Lamb’s supporters worry that his overabundance of caution is allowing Republicans to define him—a serious disadvantage for a candidate with little name recognition. The same poll taken in mid-February that showed Lamb within striking distance of Saccone also showed that 20 percent of district voters still had no opinion of him.
“I don’t think the campaign is taking advantage of the moment right now,” says a Democratic consultant familiar with the area.
“There isn’t any doubt that [Lamb’s] being significantly outspent on television by the Saccone people and their interests,” says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College poll and the dean of Pennsylvania political observers. “The Democrats at a national level and their interest groups don’t seem to be nearly as engaged. … The Republicans realize how significant this is and they don’t want to risk losing this seat and creating a literal meltdown.”
The special election won’t directly affect the outcome of the November midterms. Lamb and Saccone are running to fill the remainder of Murphy’s term, meaning that whoever wins will be up for reelection just seven months later in November. Win or lose, Lamb says he’ll be running again then.
By then, the district may look radically different than it does today. In January, the state Supreme Court found Pennsylvania’s congressional districts unconstitutional and ordered the General Assembly to draw up new maps in time for the May primary. Republicans in Harrisburg have submitted a new map that would make the 18th District even more rural and place Lamb’s Mount Lebanon home outside of the district. Pennsylvania Democrats immediately decried the new plans, and Gov. Tom Wolf submitted his own in response. The state Supreme Court said it will decide on a map by Monday and may draw its own—a decision that is likely set off another set of legal challenges before any redistricting is finalized.
For now, Lamb’s focused on the race ahead of him. After a full day on the trail, I meet up with him at a dimly lit corner table at a Hilton Garden Inn just outside Pittsburgh. It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday and I’m nursing a beer. Lamb, who started his day at 5:30 a.m., orders a coffee, black. He has more meetings after this interview.
We’re joined at the table by Lamb’s younger brother, Coleman, who’s working full time on the campaign for free, lest anyone accuse Conor of nepotism, and Mike Madeo, the candidate’s body man. Madeo, who met Lamb in the Marines, is now playing aide-de-campaign for a guy four years his junior. I ask him why. He leans in and looks me directly in the eye.
“I think he’s the antidote to what is wrong with modern day politics,” Madeo says. “I think he’s actually going to work with people to try to get shit done.”
Minus the swearing, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a campaign staffer. But it’s also a testament of faith I hear again and again from Lamb’s choir of die-hard supporters: He can transcend this world of partisan hackery, fake news narratives and outrage-driven politics. Just how much of that is actually about Lamb, and how much of that is simply anti-Trump fervor, is hard to tell.
For his part, the candidate does little to dampen the hopes others place in him to restore politics to some bygone era when morally outstanding men brokered bipartisan deals and used long-winded, in-person arguments to sway voters instead of outrage-inducing tribal appeals on Twitter and TV.
Instead, he sees it as a kind of legacy.
“My grandfather … always used to say—I remember it really well—that he was proud to be a politician,” says Lamb, who bought and moved into his grandfather’s Mount Lebanon house last year. “He wanted to redeem that word.”
“I’ve never been ashamed to tell anyone that I was interested in this life [running for office], because I saw it [growing up], and I knew it could be good. And, honestly, I probably get more motivated the more maligned and degraded the whole thing has become.”
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