The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under Trump, Conor Lamb was a rising Democratic star. Now, he’s fading.

Lamb was the model Democrat in 2018. But these days, Democrats in Pennsylvania say they want more.

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) speaks May 4, 2022 at a Philadelphia news conference hosted by the National Organization for Women, which endorsed him in the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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PITTSBURGH — Conor Lamb stood with Joe Biden at a campaign rally here days before a special election in 2018. Voters were about to issue a resounding repudiation of then-President Trump and catapult Lamb to Democratic stardom.

Lamb, a young, centrist, clean-cut Marine Corps veteran and former prosecutor, was about to flip a red U.S. House district in western Pennsylvania — an early harbinger of the Democratic takeover of the House later that year. Biden, then a former vice president eager to help, stood before a roaring crowd and gave the young candidate “the highest compliment,” comparing Lamb to his late son, Beau. Lamb said he “couldn’t be happier to be onstage today with a leader that everybody likes.”

A Democrat in gym shorts tries to rally blue votes in Trump country

The political dynamics for both men couldn’t be more different four years later, with Lamb struggling badly in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat. Days before voters go to the polls, no national headliners are coming to campaign for the congressman. Those missing include Biden, now an unpopular president who is neutral in the intraparty contest.

Lamb is trailing John Fetterman by as many as 39 points in some public opinion polls. Fetterman is a tattooed, 6-foot-9 liberal with a shaved head who has emerged as a folk hero for many Pennsylvania Democrats. Lamb was the model Democrat in 2018, a congenial, manicured candidate straight from Hollywood central casting who could appeal to voters turned off by Trump while still wary of the party that opposed the 45th president.

But these days, Democrats here say they want more than something to vote against; they want something to vote for. And many say they have found that in Fetterman.

“Conor Lamb is a good guy, but we’ve got enough lambs on our side, we need a lion,” said Jeffrey Phillips, 66, a retired electrician attending a recent Fetterman event. “We get in trouble because we are always picking guys we think can win.”

The race in Pennsylvania is expected to factor heavily into the battle for control of the Senate this November. Democrats are defending the narrowest of majorities, and Pennsylvania offers them a chance to flip a seat now under Republican control in a purple state.

Biden’s lingering unpopularity looms over his party in Pennsylvania, where he won in 2020 after Trump’s surprising victory in the state in 2016. But a competitive and costly Republican primary in which a lesser-known far-right candidate has recently been surging in some polls has boosted Democratic hopes of winning here in the fall.

Fetterman is something of an anomaly in today’s politics. After Democratic voters rejected left-leaning candidates in other high-profile intraparty contests during the Biden presidency, Fetterman, who endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president in 2016, has seized the inside track in a crowded field featuring more mainstream competition.

On a recent warm evening, Fetterman wore an oversize burgundy Carhartt hoodie, baggy gym shorts and black Sketchers as he wove his way through a crowd gathered on a restaurant patio in Westmoreland County, an area south of Pittsburgh that went for Trump over Biden by more than 30 percentage points.

Phillip Schuller, 68, sat at a table with five people he’d just met, each sampling a small glass of raspberry jalapeño beer on tap. Schuller said he enthusiastically campaigned for Lamb in 2018 but in this race is wholeheartedly behind Fetterman.

“I highly admired him, he’s a good man,” Schuller said of Lamb. “If he wins he’ll be fine, but Fetterman is better.”

“It’s nothing against Conor Lamb,” Schuller’s table mate, Mary Ritter, 60, said. But Fetterman, she said, “has the ‘it factor’. I find him lovable.”

Lamb’s pitch to voters is about electability, pointing to his three consecutive wins in red districts where Republicans spent millions of dollars trying to defeat him. That message earned him the endorsement of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, dozens of local unions and the National Organization for Women.

Last week, the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the state’s largest newspaper, endorsed Lamb, writing that he was the Democrats’ best chance at flipping the Senate seat being left open by retiring Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey.

Larry Ceisler, a public affairs strategist and a veteran of Pennsylvania politics, supports Lamb but acknowledges that voters appear to be looking for someone nontraditional this year.

“Conor is just a wonderful person, nose to the grindstone, work it out, get things done. He’s a workhorse, not a show horse, and unfortunately, the electorate is going for the show horses,” Ceisler said. “When he won that special election, he created excitement, and I would argue that whatever excitement Fetterman has created in this election, Conor did 10 times that in the special because the consequences were so great.”

But Ceisler said that Lamb’s past success has been as a general election candidate and that he has never been tested in a competitive primary with Democratic voters.

Lamb got a late start, joining the race six months after Fetterman, who amassed a nearly $4 million war chest in the first quarter of 2021. As of the end of April, Lamb had raised a little more than $6 million, most of which came from large donations. Fetterman raised nearly $16 million, more than half of which came from small-dollar donations.

The Lamb campaign did not make him available for an interview for this story. His campaign was initially unresponsive to a request to see Lamb on the campaign trail and later said he has not had many public events and has “mostly been door knocking.”

Fetterman also has benefited from higher name recognition — he ran for the same Senate seat in 2016, won statewide in a race for lieutenant governor and appears regularly on MSNBC. And he is accessible on social media; just this week, a recently engaged woman with 129 Twitter followers tweeted that she wanted Fetterman to officiate her Nov. 23 wedding. He responded, “I’d be honored.”

On a Wednesday night in the backroom of the small Beaver County Democrats headquarters, about a dozen people gathered for a “text bank,” the work of grass-roots volunteers texting would-be voters. On this night, Lamb’s campaign was providing a Zoom tutorial on sending and responding to texts.

If a voter was undecided, campaign workers sent back a prewritten message about Lamb’s priorities, including raising the federal minimum raise to $15 an hour and cutting prescription drug prices. “I truly believe that Conor gives us the best chance to win this November and he has the record to prove it,” the automated text said.

Beaver County, which is in Lamb’s congressional district, is a predominantly White, working-class area north of Pittsburgh that used to be a Democratic stronghold but has voted Republican in the past four presidential elections. In the Democratic office, on the first floor of a multiuse building, the walls are decorated with framed portraits of Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a corner stands life-size cutouts of Biden and Vice President Harris.

All but a few of the volunteers were Lamb supporters, including Erin Gabriel, 43, a mother of girls with developmental disabilities. Gabriel said she is backing Lamb because he provides substantial answers on policy questions, especially about issues of disability rights. She said Lamb’s joining Democratic Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. in the U.S. Senate “would be a dream scenario for kids like mine.”

“I want someone who can actually do the job,” Gabriel said. “He listens really, really well, learns the issues and campaigns on the causes. He’s focused on service.”

Alicia Zimmerman, 52, said that she was originally going to vote for Fetterman but that when she heard him at a candidate forum, she felt Lamb offered more substance. She’s now undecided about whom she ultimately will support.

“Lamb seems like he will hit the ground running; he knows the bills, the policies,” she said. “They’re both good candidates; my heart loves them both.”

Carolyn Yager, 63, felt similarly conflicted. She began supporting Fetterman before Lamb entered the race. Now, she’s sticking with Fetterman, saying she may have been for Lamb had he gotten in earlier.

Yager added that she “liked the idea of” Fetterman’s “walking into the Senate” and shaking up the status quo.

While Lamb has won over many local Democratic officials, Fetterman has been able to peel off some influential Democrats who normally align themselves with the more-moderate wing of the party, reflecting the far reach of his influence in state circles.

T.J. Rooney, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, threw his support behind Fetterman six weeks ago. Rooney said he went for the candidate with the most momentum to carry the state in November.

“If you’re going to win, you’re going to have to be able to adjust. If we don’t adjust at this moment in time, we’re going to lose. I don’t make bones about the fact that I epitomize the establishment Democratic Party. Nine times out of 10 I would have supported Conor Lamb, but you can’t use the usual playbook; it ends up being an unmitigated disaster,” Rooney said.

Around 125 people, including Phillips, crowded into a small airport hangar in Fayette County in a deep-red part of the state to hear Fetterman exactly a week before the primary. He worked the room, posing for photos with a wide, open-mouthed grin.

A grown man asked for a “fanboy selfie.” A woman told Fetterman she’d been registered as a Republican but switched parties this year to vote for him. “Can I give you a hug for that?” Fetterman asked. Another woman, who’d rushed home to change after cleaning houses, started crying when she met him, thanking him for not turning his back on the conservative parts of the state such as Fayette County.

In an indicator of how minimally competitive the Democratic race has become, Fetterman did not even mention Lamb in his brief remarks, saying he had no interest in attacking a fellow Democrat. Instead, he trained his attention on Mehmet Oz, a possible GOP opponent in the general election, calling him a “weirdo celebrity doctor.”

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