Much has been written about how a Conor Lamb victory in Pennsylvania’s special congressional election — or even a close loss — spells trouble for the Republican Party.
This is, after all, a district that Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016. And it has long been a red district; before the scandal that led to this special election, Republicans carried the area by at least a 15-point margin for each of the previous eight congressional cycles, according to FiveThirtyEight. In 2014 and 2016, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. Republicans have likewise learned their most significant legislative achievement of the past year — tax cuts — don’t seem to carry much weight. Nor do Trump’s new tariffs on metals, even in an area historically known for steel production.
But it is not only Republicans who should be uneasy about the results of this special election. Democratic leadership might be in trouble, too.
With their economic message not entirely resonating, Republican ads in Pennsylvania sought to link Lamb to a favorite bogey(wo)man, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In response, Lamb looked at gettable voters in his district, and decided he agreed that Pelosi was radioactive. He pledged not to support Pelosi as party leader in the House.
“My opponent wants you to believe that the biggest issue in this campaign is Nancy Pelosi. It’s all a big lie,” Lamb, 33, said in a campaign ad. “I’ve already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.”
Pelosi has helmed her party in Congress for 15 years, either as speaker or minority leader, and has batted away challengers. Lamb’s decision to distance himself from her might, therefore, seem like a one-off event — a choice made by a Democratic candidate trying to eke out victory in a solidly Republican district.
But Lamb’s choice echoed the positions of other Democrats already in Congress — disproportionately younger politicians, and from areas much bluer than Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district — who have also called for a new face for their party.
In November 2016, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) helped lead an (ultimately unsuccessful) insurrection against Pelosi. And his district has voted 6 percentage points more Democratic than the country as a whole in recent elections, according to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index (i.e., it has a PVI of D+6).
Other Democrats in their 30s and 40s who’ve backed ousting Pelosi as minority leader have included Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), whose district has a PVI of D+4; Ruben Gallego, also of Arizona, whose district is D+23; and Tim Ryan of Ohio (D+7), who actually ran against Pelosi for the leadership position in 2016. (At that time, he received about a third of the votes.) According to Politico, after a meeting last June on whether to replace Pelosi as leader, Congressional Black Caucus leader Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (La., D+25) declined to say whether he’d voted against Pelosi in that leadership race. He told reporters he “probably” thought Democrats could take back the House in 2018 with Pelosi at the helm, but that Dems would likely have to spend campaign money to counter Republican attacks against her.
All politics are local, and perhaps Democrats running in other districts may make not choose to jump on the anti-Pelosi train in the coming midterms. But you could also imagine Lamb’s strategy emboldening some of them — particularly those in red or purple states, where even Democrats may be cool to a woman from San Francisco — to pledge not to support her. Which means even if that “blue wave” strikes in November, it still might wash away the current House minority leader.
Update 5:30 p.m.: Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, argues that the Pennsylvania special election does not say anything about Pelosi other than that attacking her doesn’t move voters. Lamb’s closing ad wasn’t about distancing himself from Pelosi, Hammill points out, despite the fact that Republicans kept talking about her: “Attacks aimed at tying Lamb to Nancy Pelosi continued until Election Day so we now have fresh evidence that the anti-Pelosi strategy doesn’t work even in a deep red district.”