Republicans are fucked. There is no other possible way to interpret Democrat Conor Lamb’s ridiculously implausible victory on Tuesday in a special congressional election in Pennsylvania. The 33-year-old ex-Marine, former prosecutor, and certified hottie edged out a veteran Republican lawmaker in a steel-country district that Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points just 16 months ago. A district where Democrats didn’t even bother to run a candidate in the previous two elections. A district that’s practically as white as Utah. A district that’s exactly the kind of place where Trumpism is supposed to be bulletproof. “We should be able to elect a box of hammers in this district,” moaned GOP consultant Mike Murphy. “If we’re losing here, you can bet there is a Democratic wave coming.”
After Tuesday, it looks like a huge wave forming. In a whopping 110 Republican-held House districts across the country, Trump won in 2016 by less than he did in Pennsylvania’s 18th. Democrats only need to win 24 of them to take back a House majority in November. Even with their preternatural knack for turning sure wins into losses (see, for example, Clinton vs. Trump), the consultants who run the party in Washington would really have to pull out all the stops to prevent The Resistance from lifting the Democrats back to power.
Don’t worry, though – the Democrats will try to screw it up. It’s a time-honored party tradition. On Tuesday, of course, the blue side was mostly stamping and cheering in unison for Lamb, lefties along with centrists. What was not to love about Trump Republicans losing in a district that’s often referred to as “Northern West Virginia”? Especially after the GOP poured more than $10 million into trying to save the seat. Making the schadenfreude even more delicious, Trump threw himself into the campaign full-bore in its final stages. Last week, he announced a steep tariff on steel and aluminum – the one issue, more than any other, that might sway this labor-heavy district into the GOP column. (“Do you think it could possibly have all been for western Pennsylvania?” Gail Collins asked rhetorically in The New York Times. “Duh.”)
— Andrew Rush (@andrewrush) March 12, 2018
All the most Trumpy of surrogates were parachuted in: Ivanka, Kellyanne, VP Pence. On Election Eve, Donald Trump Jr. toured a candy factory with the doomed Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, resulting in indelible images of the “first son” wearing a hairnet over his helmet of painted-on black hair and being interviewed by a chocolate bunny. Over the weekend, Trump pere held his second rally for Saccone, holding forth for 75 minutes of vintage bombast. The president gifted the Democratic candidate with a nickname, “Lamb the Sham,” and explained the sobriquet: “He’s trying to act like a Republican. But he won’t give me one vote” once he gets to Congress, he warned his raucous fans.
But the voters in the district knew that wasn’t true: If Lamb made anything clear in his campaign, it’s that he most certainly will vote with Trump on occasion. On guns, for one thing: Lamb opposes a ban on assault weapons, such as the AR-15 he was shown firing in one of his campaign ads. He supports the president’s trade policies, too including the new tariffs. He pooh-poohs single-payer healthcare. He’s as “pro-military” as a person could be. (He is also “personally opposed” to abortion, though he says it should be legal.)
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. He was so reluctant to criticize the president that NBC reporter Kacie Hunt made it her mission on Tuesday to ask him about Trump and try to extract something. Lamb wouldn’t rise to the bait:
Conor Lamb has no comment on whether President Trump is a stable commander in chief based on today’s events.
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) March 13, 2018
“Just try getting this guy to say anything critical of Trump,” Hunt marveled on MSNBC. An equally mystified Guardian reporter noted, accurately, that “Lamb has been almost painfully non-controversial.” In a rally over the weekend in a rural corner of the district, the president of the United Mine Workers, Cecil Roberts, summed up the reasons why white people were about to vote for a Democrat here, hailing Lamb as “a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social Security-believing, sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat.”
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Lamb unintentionally pointed up the vacuousness of the platform he ran on: “Our issue in this campaign was common ground,” he said. Which is not an “issue,” of course; it’s a particularly lame Hallmark sentiment.
The first ad Lamb ran in the campaign – his “bio” spot – set the tone. Watching it, you wouldn’t suspect that the candidate was anything but a good old Republican. The first image you see is a little-boy Lamb, posing in a football uniform. “He grew up here,” it starts, “went to Central Catholic, then college and law school. Served four years in the Marines. Still loves to shoot.” (This is where the AR-15 makes its star turn.) The word “Democrat” comes up twice – once, when the voiceover says Lamb is “the only candidate calling for Democrats and Republicans to have new leadership,” and again, when the final message appears on screen as the ad fades out, promising he’ll “work with Democrats and Republicans.” (In a subsequent ad, Lamb claimed he could heal the partisan divide because he was a Marine.)
The real message of Lamb’s campaign basically boiled down to this: “Look at what a fine young normal white fellow I am!” But, hey: It worked – partly because Lamb does come across as a kind of professional Eagle Scout. Only a hopeless left-wing purist could argue that Lamb’s approach was the wrong one for the 18th district in Pennsylvania. No gun-banning feminist with ardent backing from Our Revolution could have won this race. And on balance, it’s certainly better to have one more insufficiently liberal Democrat in Congress than one more GOP lap-dog for Trump. Lamb’s campaign, for all its glossy emptiness, certainly offers some helpful hints for Democrats running in overwhelmingly Republican districts like his.
But the Democratic establishment doesn’t just see Lamb as a model for running in deep-red districts that are overwhelmingly white. They want him to be a model for Democrats running everywhere – to see Lamb’s victory, in Jonathan Chait’s words at New York, as “proof of concept for a strategy that could replicate itself across the country.” And so, of course, do the conservative Blue Dogs. Tim Ryan, the anti-Bernie Bro from Ohio who challenged Pelosi for speaker last year, says that Lamb “embodies to me what the next iteration of the Democratic Party is going to look like. Veterans, working class, really representing people who are underemployed, who were maybe making some decent money 10-15 years ago but aren’t now.”
This isn’t just a few scattered moderates talking: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is pursuing a centrist strategy for winning in the fall, working in close coordination with the Blue Dog Coalition. The DCCC chair, Ben Ray Lujan, started the cycle last year by announcing there would be no “litmus test for Democratic candidates,” signaling that the Democrats would support “candidates that fit the district.” Which is code for: You can hate abortion and Obamacare and love guns and run like a Republican, and we’ll still support you if we think you can win. In places where Democrats have both progressive and moderate candidates running in primaries, the party has tried to persuade left-wingers (including some notable candidates of color) to step out of the race—in some cases, sharing “opposition research” they expect Republicans would use against the leftie in a general election. In Texas, before a congressional primary in Houston, the Democrats went public with their opposition research against the most liberal candidate in the field. (It backfired pretty spectacularly.)
This clamor for centrism in a time of Resistance would be profoundly baffling, if it wasn’t the Democratic establishment we were talking about here. The DCCC’s strategy risks deflating the Resistance, turning off non-white voters, and dampening the turnout that Democrats should be able to expect in November, given the level of Trump animus across the country. Even if the DCCC does its worst, though, Democrats will still almost certainly take back the House in November. The question is whether they’ll win it back in a way that points the party forward. 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.