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Why a Democrat win in Pennsylvania coal country won’t mean what you think
If a Democrat takes the seat, it might not matter
The race between Democrat Conor Lamb and incumbent Republican Rick Saccone for western Pennsylvania’s 18th District will likely come down to the wire. Tuesday’s special election will be yet another proving ground for what kind of policies can win in the age of President Donald Trump. A number of candidates across the country running under the auspices of groups like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, and the Democratic Socialists of America have run progressive platforms to great success. There have been other candidates like those put up by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and endorsed by more establishment organizations who have stuck to the 2016 Democratic party line to varying degrees of success.
Conor Lamb is testing another theory: what if a pro-union Democrat ran like a Republican?
It’s easy to see Lamb’s motivation. In the area of Western Pennsylvania Lamb hopes to represent, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 20 points, and Mitt Romney carried it by a similar margin. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.) was about as conservative as they come and enjoyed fifteen years representing the district before he was forced to resign following allegations that the pro-life politician pressured his mistress into having an abortion.
While centrist or “blue dog” Democrats are nothing new, the model of such figures is often fiscally conservative and socially liberal like Jon Ossoff, who failed in his bid to take Georgia’s 4th District last summer. Lamb, however, is kind of the opposite. Not only is he a social conservative, he leans to the right on environment, women’s rights, expansion of social programs, and even support for the Democratic caucus. While he supports the unions and Medicare, he is against many of the progressive economic policies that some Democrats see as essential for America’s future.
Lamb’s a Democrat
Before we launch into where Lamb differs from the party, it is only fair to talk about where he aligns with the broader liberal movement in America. His campaign has had two major cornerstones: union support and the defense of Medicare. Lamb is standing firm in the fight against union-busting, so-called “right to work” measures, and Paul Ryan’s push for austerity, which involves steep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare.
But how much of a Democrat is he?
Rather than attack Trump, like so many aspiring Democratic politicians this cycle, Lamb has chosen instead to take shots at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “It’s nothing personal,” he told the Atlantic, “It’s just that it’s been too long with the same leaders on both sides. But I definitely don’t support Paul Ryan either.”
A look at Lamb’s other stances on policy issues show just how much distance there is between the Democratic mainstream and what Lamb believes. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find an elected Democrat more to the right than Conor Lamb if you set aside the issue of collective bargaining.
Lamb has long held that the way to prevent mass shootings is to strengthen background checks and make mental-health treatment more accessible. He is against banning any particular kind of firearm, and the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not change his position.
At a recent campaign event, Lamb said, “I believe we have pretty good laws on the books and it says on paper that there are a lot of people who should never get guns in their hands … I think that the emotions that a lot of us are feeling right now are very raw because we know that there’s not one thing we can do with the stroke of a pen or one thing you can ban. We need a comprehensive answer on mental health.”
Lamb, a lifelong Catholic, sounds like a moderate Republican on choice. He has said, “I come from a Catholic background, (but) choice is the law of the land.” When asked specific questions regarding funding for abortions and related services, Lamb has often ducked out of clear answers.
Though Lamb is pro-union in many instances, he actually stands in opposition to a number of unions, including two of the nation’s most powerful, SEIU and UNITE HERE, in his opposition to a $15 minimum wage. The Fight for 15 campaign has been a cornerstone of progressive activism across the country, and Lamb’s opposition puts him on the right of the Democratic Party.
At a recent debate, Lamb said, “I think $15 sounds high based on what I’ve been told by many small business owners in our area. I would rather see something that was agreed on by both sides.”
Single-payer healthcare is quickly becoming a litmus test issue for progressive candidates, and in areas like Lamb’s the issue is gaining popularity. However, Conor Lamb is opposed to single payer. The Washington Post summed up his position as, “not ready for universal Medicare.”
On his campaign website he states, “Republican leaders have not even allowed a vote on a bipartisan common-sense effort to strengthen the ACA and stabilize the markets … I’ll work with anyone from either party who wants to help people with pre-existing conditions, improve quality of care, and reduce premiums, out-of-pocket costs, and prescription drug prices.”
Lamb straddles a similar line on student debt. While he advocates the “reform of our student loan system, which right now forces too many students into a lifetime debt trap,” he stops short of concrete proposals such as measures to stop predatory for-profit universities or free college.
He says that you should be able to get an education “without taking on decades worth of debt,” but the implication by omission here is that years worth of debt is just fine.
The historic coal and steel production of Western Pennsylvania has given way to fracking jobs in recent years. While some may consider it electoral suicide to run against fracking in that area of the country, the environmental impacts are also undeniable. Furthermore, support for fracking does not align with left-leaning priorities like climate justice and support for Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Lamb defines himself as “pro-fracking.” One of the “Priorities” listed on his website is “Modern Energy Development.” To him, this means that the “Government should not be an impediment to energy development and job creation…”
With friends like these…
Various Democrats have said that litmus tests are a bad thing. However, at a certain point, you have to ask what a Democrat is. If Jon Ossoff and Conor Lamb are both Democrats, then what exactly do the Democrats stand for, except, of course, opposing Republicans? Furthermore, would the depressed electorate be motivated by a more consistent and focused national party?
There are two schools of thought in the Democratic Party. One is that establishing a clear set of indisputable priorities will create new energy, identity, and trust in the party. The other is that flexibility on issues on a regional basis will create a path for a Democratic majority.
A number of candidates have tried similar tactics to Lamb in hopes of swaying red state voters with compromise. Some have succeeded and many have failed. While progressive groups like Our Revolution have produced a healthy win percentage for Democrats, they have also had notable losses like Rob Quist in Montana.
Lamb’s candidacy is yet another attempt at shaping the future of the Democratic Party. While Democrats all over the country will be rooting for him, if he wins, liberals across America might be surprised by how this Democrat casts his votes.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.