It is an extraordinarily tight race, within 1000 votes at this writing, with the last absentee ballots being counted. Conor Lamb looks likely to squeak in by 0.1 percent or so, thereby administering a crushing defeat to Republicans in a district that Trump carried by 20 percent.
Win or lose, though, Lamb’s achievement in this district of Trump Democrats is a political earthquake. It suggests that 2018 will be a long year for Republicans as they try to defend House and Senate seats in a political environment far more favorable to Democrats than 2016.
Without exit polling, we can’t know for sure what sorts of voters went for each candidate, but looking at precinct returns can teach us a lot. First, there was substantial movement toward the Democrats in virtually all precincts. That translated to markedly smaller leads for Rick Saccone (R) in the three more rural counties of the district. And it meant that Conor Lamb had a solid lead (57.5 percent) in the southern parts of Allegheny County that are the most populous part of the district. These were all precincts that went for Trump two years ago. The visits by Trump and his surrogates, the massive spending by outside GOP groups failed to stem the tide.
Lamb’s performance shows us that blue collar, less-educated populations are still open to appeals by the right kind of Democrat: relatively conservative on issues like guns or abortion, pro-union, pro-safety net programs like Medicare and even Obamacare.
Lamb’s performance shows us that blue collar, less-educated populations are still open to appeals by the right kind of Democrat: relatively conservative on issues like guns or abortion, pro-union, pro-safety net programs like Medicare and even Obamacare. It is no accident that the exemplar of this kind of Democrat is Senator Joe Manchin of neighboring West Virginia. The 18th District has a lot in common with the folks across the state line. And it is also not accidental that one of Pennsylvania’s senators is Bob Casey, who is smoother than Manchin but also fits the mold.
In this era of ideological polarization, when the most conservative Democrat is measurably more liberal than the least conservative Republican, both parties have come increasingly under the sway of their more ideologically pure activists, because these are the people who volunteer for campaigns and who turn out reliably in primaries. The Republicans have lost several elections (Indiana and Alabama Senate races, and the Virginia governorship, to cite a few examples) by nominating extreme conservatives. The Democrats have the same tendency, but perhaps not as strong.
If the Democrats are to succeed in taking control of either house of Congress, they will have to keep their tent larger than the shrinking Republican tent. That will mean having the wisdom to vote in primaries for candidates that can win in their particular districts. Liberals in California, Massachusetts, New York, or Maryland can afford to indulge in voting their progressive politics. For those of us in more conservative climes, we need to ask, “Can this candidate actually win in this district?” If the answer is no, they shouldn’t get the nomination.
The winner-take-all election system is deeply imbedded in American political practice at all levels. Traditionally, public opinion on any given issue was distributed in a bell curve, with more moderate positions in the majority. Parties had an incentive to move to the center to appeal to those moderates. For a generation, since the Gingrich takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 election. Republicans have been trying to prove that a party can be ideologically pure and still win. They have had mixed success. The GOP has become increasingly a party of the South and the most conservative rural areas of the Great Plains and Mountain West. The Democrats have tended to stay more with the old centrist approach, though not without the tensions that were manifest in the Clinton-Sanders competition in 2016. Clinton’s failure to appeal to the more conservative Democrats in places like PA-18 literally cost her the election.
Conor Lamb’s message is that Democrats can win in places that Clinton lost. But as a party they will have to show more ideological flexibility than the Republicans. That will be a price worth paying if they can finally get in position to check the most dangerous president in the history of this country.