Pennsylvania’s pivotal House special election will give Democrats an early chance to see if they can win back the white, blue-collar voters who have drifted away from the party.
President Trump carried the Pittsburgh-area 18th District by 20 percentage points in 2016, suggesting a tough fight for Democrats. But now Democrat Conor Lamb has an outside chance at winning March 13 special election, thanks to growing energy on the left and a lack of GOP enthusiasm for Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone.
While Democrats have a registration advantage in the district, the seat’s other demographics favor Republicans. The population is 92 percent white, and almost half the population is above the age of 44. Ninety-six percent of residents were born in the United States, and 81 percent are Pennsylvania natives.
If Lamb can pull off a surprise win, it could boost Democrats’ hopes of being competitive in November in other districts where traditionally Democratic blue-collar voters ditched the party for Trump in 2016.
There are national implications to this race,” said Frank Snyder, the secretary of the Pennsylvania American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which has endorsed Lamb. “Are there enough people in [the district] that have begun to think of things differently?”
Democrats have scrutinized Saccone’s record in the state. And Lamb’s campaign has launched an ad based on a new report from The Intercept that details the more than $400,000 in taxpayer money that Saccone spent in taxpayer-funded personal expenses while in the legislature.
Lamb supporters argue that his campaign should learn from the 2016 race, where they believe Trump flipped Pennsylvania in no small part thanks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s focus on attacking Trump instead of promoting her own message.
“While he was talking about the economy … the other candidate, all that she did at that time was talk about Trump, rather than define herself,” Snyder said.
he’s going to add to the list of recent surprise Democratic victories, Lamb must win back union and blue-collar voters who flocked to Trump in 2016, make a winning case against the GOP tax plan and convert Republicans’ low approval ratings into Democratic votes.
Democrats face many of the same challenges in this year’s midterm elections, albeit in districts far more favorable to the left. So success here could provide Democrats with a road map for November.
Former Rep. Tim Murphy (R) resigned from the seat last year after reports that the anti-abortion rights congressman had urged his mistress to get an abortion. Murphy had held on to the seat with ease since taking office in 2002, thanks in part to some labor support.
But with Murphy gone, the unions have swung back to Democrats. Labor is lining up behind Lamb, who has made union outreach a key part of his campaign. Meanwhile, the unions have bristled at Saccone, who did not return the AFL-CIO’s candidate questionnaire.
Union voters are a potent force in the district. Roughly 60,000 people in the district either belong to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO or share a household with someone who does. And Lamb also has the backing of the local Service Employees International Union, which has between 6,000 and 7,000 members in the district.
Those groups and other unions are mobilizing in support of the Democrat, urging local chapters to invest however they can to help persuade their membership to vote for Lamb.
The aggressive outreach comes as Democrats look to win back union voters. The party’s presidential vote share from union households dropped 7 percentage points from 2012 to 2016, while the GOP’s share rose 2 points.
A group of influential Pennsylvania labor leaders braved bad weather last week to meet with Lamb, a sign of labor’s commitment to steering their members back to Democrats.
“They were all excited about the message of Conor Lamb, they all believe in his campaign,” Snyder said about the reception of labor representatives at the meeting.
“We hope labor can be a big part of [the Democratic effort]. We hope, anticipate and expect to make up a quarter of the vote.”
But Republicans believe union members won’t be so easily swayed by union leadership. One Republican strategist told The Hill last month that he believes that union leaders have a very different mindset from the rank and file, who he believes are more comfortable backing Republicans.
“God, country and family come first ahead of their unions,” the strategist said.
Republicans also believe the GOP’s recent tax-reform bill will serve as a counterweight to any angst about the direction of the Republican leadership in Washington.
Virtually every piece of Republican messaging in the district focuses on Lamb’s opposition to the plan, which Republicans claim will net the average family in the district $2,900 in savings per year.
Ads from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC and the pro-Trump 45Committee all use Lamb’s opposition to the plan to tie him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), even though Lamb has said he would vote against Pelosi as Democratic leader.
But Lamb recently echoed Pelosi’s criticism of individual tax savings as “crumbs,” a line Republicans have bludgeoned the party with for weeks.
Lamb has defended his criticism of the tax-reform bill by arguing that the law disproportionately helps the highest earners.
That messaging follows recent polling released by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA that shows that, while vast majorities believe that the wealthy will benefit from the tax plan, less than a quarter of those polled believe “the average worker will benefit a lot.”
“The tax plan is the embodiment of an ideology held by every Republican running for office, an ideology that says we should skew the economy even more to the wealthy and well-connected to the expense of the middle class,” said Jesse Ferguson, a House Democratic strategist.
“You can litigate a campaign against that ideology without getting into a national debate about the two parties.”
Still, Republicans don’t believe that the comparison will matter to voters if they see a tangible increase in their own take-home pay.
“At the end of the day, what people care about is how this is affecting my family and helping me. So many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, they don’t care about who gets more money, they care about how it helps them,” the national GOP strategist said.
The tax argument also gives Republicans a way to tie Lamb to Pelosi, a popular Republican tactic that’s proved successful in special elections this cycle.
“Say what you want about Donald Trump, but Nancy Pelosi is the most disliked politician in the country. So if you have that arrow in the quiver, why not use it?” a Pennsylvania Republican strategist watching the race told The Hill.
Lamb’s camp is hitting back with ads tying Saccone to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
The new ad doesn’t even mention Saccone, instead accusing Ryan of recklessly handling Medicaid and Social Security. It’s unclear how those attacks will land in a conservative district, but Democrats believe that highlighting threats to entitlement programs will resonate with voters.
“When Donald Trump won this district, he won it by bringing some Democrats along with him. I would guess that they are disinclined to support somebody like Paul Ryan, who is on the record and has been for years in going after Medicare and Social Security,” said Democratic strategist Mike Mikus, who lives in the district.
“That could be a very effective message, because it’s such an older district.”
Both Democrats and Republicans caution against drawing too many conclusions for November from the race, since the district’s demographics are unlike those in many of the leading midterm battlegrounds. Democrats need to net 24 seats in November to claim the majority and are focusing on 23 GOP-held seats that Clinton won in 2016.
Still, Ferguson said that the special election could provide an important test of whether Democrats can expand their appeal to even loyal Republican voters in the midterms.
“A victory here won’t tell us about getting to the majority, it will tell us about how far into the majority Democrats might get,” he said.