On Wednesday morning, I returned from Pennsylvania to an entirely different universe: the sidewalk outside the House GOP’s weekly meeting. One by one, Republicans in both safe seats and swing seats explained that the apparent defeat of their candidate in the 18th Congressional District — an area Donald Trump had carried by 20 points in 2016 — was a function of the Democrat running as a Republican.
“At times, you couldn’t tell whether he was a Democrat or a Republican,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), now a candidate for the Senate, said of Lamb.
“Lamb ran as a conservative — against Pelosi, pro-life, pro-gun,” said Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.).
This analysis, which first started circulating among Republicans in the race’s final weekend, was embraced Wednesday night by the president himself.
“He said very nice things about me,” Trump said. “I kept saying, is he a Republican? He sounded like a Republican to me.” Later, Trump added that Lamb told voters, “Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.”
None of that is true. Lamb did not run as a Trump supporter. He ran against the tax cuts, not for them. His abortion stance was a lot like that of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — while personally opposing abortion, he was against new restrictions on the procedure, a position that inspired a Family Research Council ad comparing him to Kim Jong Un.
But even on the left, Lamb’s victory has been viewed warily, with plenty of worry that Democrats would shove aside more left-wing candidates in favor of moderates, and some hasty adoption of the “Republican lite” myth.
“Lamb, for all his fresh-faced charm, ran and won as a Trump Democrat — a flashback to the ‘Republican Lite’ candidacies the Democrats specialized in during the Clinton ’90s and ’00s,” warned liberal author Bob Moser in an essay for Rolling Stone. “The America of the future looks absolutely nothing like the 18th District in Pennsylvania. And the future of the Democratic Party looks nothing like Conor Lamb.”
I spent a lot of time in the district, starting in November when Lamb was nominated. Rather than going through every hot, wrong take, I’d like to point out a few things that Lamb figured out, and a few things he did, that are getting somewhat lost.
Not every election is about Trump. Seriously, it isn’t. Lamb’s decision not to attack Trump, or call the election a way to send Trump a message, is being incorrectly read as proof that he ran as a “conservative.” But some of the same people arguing this often recognize that Trump is not a traditional post-Reagan conservative. He’s a nationalist and protectionist who favors supply-side economics, and he is still in some ways a defender of the welfare state. Trump, for example, has insisted that economic growth will stave off any need to cut Social Security, a position not shared by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) — the Republican most frequently attacked by Lamb.
One Republican talking point has particularly stuck with me. On Monday, Republican National Committee Chairman Ronna McDaniel told a radio station that Lamb was running as a conservative because “he’s pro-tariff, he’s pro-Trump, essentially.” But half of the Republican conference opposes the new steel and aluminum tariffs, including Pennsylvania’s Republican senator — and Ryan.
Liberal voters are ready to make sacrifices. Another popular spin on the election is that Lamb, who won his nomination at a convention, is not the kind of Democrat who can win a primary in the age of #Resistance. Anyone who thinks that should read the brilliant recap of the election from Laura Putnam, who saw what I saw: The suburban Democratic groups that formed after Trump’s election were organizing in the 18th District even before Lamb became a candidate.
In PA 18, those personal relationships mobilized again and again, as outside Republican groups, spending over $10 million dollars over the course of the campaign, sought to use gun control, fracking, and abortion as wedge issues to alienate the women in the suburbs or blue-collar men outside them and dampen support for the campaign. Time after time, conversations with friends reeled people back when polarization loomed. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, Lamb sat down with local Moms Demand Action members and anguished grassroots leaders. Over the following days reassurances traveled from mouth to mouth, as Lamb’s grassroots stalwarts worked through the nuance of Lamb’s position, and reminded each other how much worse Saccone, with his NRA A+ rating, would be. Even last minute stealth mailers by national Republicans and the NRA did not shake that resolve.
Republicans, who watched their own base revolt in 2010, are overly confident that Democrats will drown their candidates with litmus tests and nominate unelectable liberals. But even the 2010 Republican revolt led to energized voters backing center-right nominees — the same midterms that elected Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) elected Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), former senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and former senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).