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Rural Democrats, left for dead, see an opening in Pennsylvania

Conor Lamb speaks after winning the Democratic nomination for Pennsyvania’s 18th Congressional District inside Washington High School’s gymnasium in Washington, Pa. (Jeff Swensen/For The Washington Post)

On Sunday, as Democrats drove south from Pittsburgh's suburbs to this city for a nominating convention, a garish billboard reminded them why they were having a special congressional election. Eight-term Republican Tim Murphy, who resigned in October after telling a mistress to terminate a possible pregnancy, has been commemorated beside Interstate 79 by the abortion rights group Reproaction.

“Abortion: Not just for your mistress!” read the sign.

Murphy’s shocking fall kicked off this Congress’s sixth special election, scheduled for March 13. Local Democrats, who did not even bother to oppose Murphy in 2016, believe they are running a strong candidate — Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old veteran of the Marines and a former assistant U.S. attorney.

To Democrats’ surprise, Republicans passed over some rising stars to nominate a conservative state representative, 59-year-old Rick Saccone, who has boasted that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump” and has crossed swords with the area’s powerful labor unions.

The result is a test that neither party expected: a fight in the sort of rural, conservative district that national Democrats gave up on years ago. Local Democrats, who in 2016 watched their party hunt for votes in more liberal suburbs, want in on the “resistance” ahead of 2018.

“The Republicans have nominated their weakest candidate, their most extreme candidate,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who represents Pittsburgh and some of its suburbs, said in a speech to the convention that nominated Lamb on Sunday. “Think about what it means to be the first in the country to say: ‘We’re coming back!’ ”

The 18th District, drawn by Murphy’s fellow Republicans to reelect him without much drama, has never seen a competitive race. Murphy scrambled party loyalties, chairing the Congressional Steel Caucus and winning over labor unions — there are 76,000 organized workers in the district — that otherwise tended to back Democrats.

On Sunday, seven Democrats battled for the chance to replace Murphy. Lamb, who has never before run for office, was a quiet favorite; his rivals included a pathbreaking female Navy veteran with some national backing, a conservative Westmoreland County commissioner who bucked the anti-Democratic Party tide, and marginal candidates who said that only a left-wing populist campaign could win ­rural Pennsylvanians back from Trump.

‘Malevolent neglect’: Are Virginia Democrats letting rural areas slip away?

Lamb, said local Democrats, won them over in part because he did not pander. To win the nomination he had to court a majority of 800-odd Democratic committee members (554 eligible members ended up trekking to the convention).

Angela Aldous, a member of the progressive post-2016 group Voice of Westmoreland, said that Lamb courted progressives but rebuffed calls to endorse universal Medicare until he could be convinced it was cost-effective.

“He listened,” said Aldous, 38. “He wasn’t going to say, ‘Hey, I’m the most far-left candidate you’re ever going to see,’ just because a lot of the people there were far-left.”

It worked, in part, because left-wing voters made up a tiny sliver of the district’s activists.

The 18th District is one of dozens, from the Deep South through Appalachia, where Democrats once dominated local politics. For decades, conservative voters remained in the party, reelecting antiabortion, pro-coal Democrats and rejecting the party’s more liberal national nominees. Even that took awhile — in 1988, the last election until 2016 in which Democrats lost Pennsylvania, Mike Dukakis won the counties that make up the 18th District by a landslide. In recent elections, its voters cast 55 percent of their votes for John McCain, 58 percent for Mitt Romney and 58 percent for Donald Trump.

Barack Obama’s victories changed the Democratic map. By 2016, Democrats had become confident they could win Pennsylvania by cutting loose conservative voters and converting suburban Republicans who agreed with them on social issues.

“For every vote we lose in western Pennsylvania,” former governor Ed Rendell said in 2016, “we’ll gain a vote in the Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh suburbs.”

Democrats no longer talk like that, although they remain skeptical about competing for rural votes as long as the national party moves left on abortion, environmental issues and gun rights.

In the 18th District, Democrats came up with a solution: Don’t move left. Lamb and his two strongest rivals all blurred or conceded on some social issues, and the Democrats who decided the race were fine with it.

“This region’s got a lot of farmers, miners, a lot of conservative-type people,” said Tom Murphy, Westmoreland County’s recorder of deeds, who backed county commissioner Gina Cerilli over Lamb. “You need to talk to them if you’re going to win.”

Christina O'Brien, an elected prothonotary in Westmoreland County who came to the convention to back Navy veteran Pam Iovino, said she had watched lifelong Democratic voters grow more hostile since Trump's campaign began. Ahead of Nov. 7, when Pennsylvanians went to the polls in local elections, she met multiple voters who asked if she had supported Trump for president. If she hadn't, the conversation was over.

"They put Hillary's face on the mailers against me when Hillary wasn't even running," O'Brien said. "I will tell you, this area is more Republican than it's ever been." Asked which national Democrats might help Lamb if they came to the district, local activists mentioned white party figures far from the party's ideological debates — former vice president Joe Biden, voting rights activist Jason Kander and Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass).

Lamb’s pitch to those voters would not start with Trump. It would start with Murphy, and the bills moving through the Congress that he was forced to abandon. In his convention speech, Lamb’s only reference to the president was about “fraud and hypocrisy” running rampant as Republicans pushed for an enormous tax cut.

“Tim Murphy and his crowd seem to think we all have amnesia,” said Lamb. “They can deliver tax cuts for the one percent, but they can’t even produce an infrastructure bill.”

Local Democrats wanted Lamb to stick to that argument and take the openings Saccone would give him. Darrin Kelly, the incoming president of the Allegheny County AFL-CIO, said that labor leaders would meet with Lamb this week and that there was little chance of them backing Saccone.

Mike Mikus, a political strategist based in the district, said the last Democrat to represent any part of the area in Congress — Mark Critz, who served from 2010 to 2013 — had secured the backing of the steelworkers’ and mineworkers’ unions and put their logos in every ad.

“Lamb’s a fresh face with a background as a Marine and prosecutor, and he’s running against someone who is a Harrisburg insider who voted to cut education by $1 billion,” Mikus said.

But if Lamb makes the race competitive, he might present a dilemma for national Democrats and progressive groups. He has bucked the party’s consensus on abortion rights and guns, while remaining somewhat slippery on what sort of legal limits he would support.

"I come from a Catholic background, [but] choice is the law of the land," Lamb said at a short news conference after his victory. Asked if he opposed taxpayer funding for abortion — something that the Democratic Party platform endorsed in 2016 — he demurred. "A lot of those issues I think we can get into later."

Lamb, like his party, would prefer to fight the election on the heroin epidemic and on the issues he handled as a prosecutor — including sexual assault. Republicans, growing their numbers in the district, would rather nationalize the race.

In the news conference, Lamb said it was “too presumptuous” to ask if he would back House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for speaker if the party regained a majority in the House. In their first statement on Lamb’s nomination, Pennsylvania Republicans called him “Nancy Pelosi’s handpicked candidate” and “a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi.” A Pelosi spokesman said she has never communicated with Lamb.

Lorraine Petrosky, the chair of Westmoreland County’s Democratic Party, said the first-time candidate could stop Republicans before that message got too much traction.

“He was a Marine. That’s all we have to say,” said Petrosky. “He was a Marine, and he’s a Catholic.”

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