While Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory over Republican Rick Saccone came down to a handful of votes, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District is considered by many to be a small but important triumph for the Democratic party. In a region where disgraced Republican congressman Tim Murphy ran unopposed in 2014 and 2016 and Donald Trump won by 20 percentage points in the 2016 election, a race this close, let alone a Democratic victory, would have seemed unimaginable in the past.
At first glance, one might attribute this result to a growing frustration with the Trump presidency. That conclusion is certainly the case, to some degree; many of Lamb’s volunteers came from resistance groups that formed following Trump’s victory. Graphics originally published by the New York Times highlight that a majority of the district shifted significantly more Democratic in the special election when compared to the results in 2016.
However, even Lamb would concede that his victory is not completely due to anti-Trump sentiment. In an interview with CNN’s “New Day,” he stated, “I was at a lot of polling places yesterday with cars parked outside of them that had President Trump’s bumper sticker on them. So he’s a popular person here.” This raises the question, what was Lamb able to do to captivate these voters that Clinton was not?
First, Lamb has been called a conservative running under a Democratic guise by many. This is often referred to as a DINO, which stands for “Democrat in Name Only.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan described the race as being run by “two conservatives,” calling Lamb a “pro-gun, pro-life, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative.” However, Ryan failed to acknowledge that Lamb ran on a pro-union platform, opposed the Republican tax bill, disagreed with Ryan’s own stance on changes to Social Security and Medicare, and supports the pro-choice movement (though he is personally pro-life). Lamb was a well-placed candidate whose stances resonated with his constituents.
Moreover, Lamb worked to personally engage with his voters. The day before the election, Lamb went door to door campaigning, reminding district residents to vote, and even bonding with some over their shared religious beliefs. As he stated in his victory speech, “[American democracy] is supposed to be for you. Not just on your TV, but in your town halls, at Legion Posts, in small auditoriums, on your street, at your door.” He dispelled the fear that politicians were not working for the people; as he adamantly promised, he is committed to tackling local issues.
The stances that Lamb took in Pennsylvania would not bring him national or even statewide electoral success. In a traditionally left-leaning community, many would take issue with his view on things like gun reform (he does not believe in an AR-15 ban) and fossil fuels (he’s a supporter of the coal industry). This works both ways, however. A candidate like Bernie Sanders, who is immensely popular in more progressive parts of the nation like the Northeast and Pacific coast, would not have fared well in this election. In fact, in the 2016 election, Clinton beat Sanders in all of the 18th district precincts. Clinton then went on to lose to Trump in all but one of the precincts.
So where does this leave the Democratic party? Some have argued for solely embracing the populist, progressive platform popularized by Bernie Sanders, but based on the results of the special election, that does not seem like a viable, long-term solution. As former Bernie Sanders press secretary, Symone Sanders put it, “the Democratic party is a party of a number of factions that have organized under one umbrella of a shared set of values. . . not necessarily a shared set of issues. . . we have to run candidates that are authentic to their messages in spaces and places that connect with the community.”
As Democrats move into the future, the party’s acceptance of candidates with a wide variety of beliefs is crucial for winning elections, especially in conservative-dominated areas. The party cannot invigorate the voices of some and suppress the voices of others. They cannot solely back candidates who fight for one set of issues. If the party that prides itself on tolerance wishes to truly adhere to its own philosophy, it must begin by embracing all of its members.
Susannah Karron ’21 is interested in philosophy and music, and serves as the Officer of Communications for the VPR.