The Slatest

Pennsylvania’s Special Election Was So Special That Democrats Can Take Away Whatever Lessons They Want From It

Conor Lamb speaks during an election night rally in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District special election in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday.
Conor Lamb speaks during an election night rally in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District special election in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.

Democrat Conor Lamb is the presumptive winner of the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, a surprise victory in a district that went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump two years ago.

What lessons, then, will Democrats take away from this massive upset? It depends on which Democrats you ask.

The grassroots left wants to claim Lamb as one of several first-time candidates with compelling life stories who have harnessed anti-Trump anger. Establishment types see Lamb as a moderate who won over white, blue-collar voters by avoiding too much talk about the environment, gun control, or the minimum wage. And still others see Lamb’s defining characteristic as some combination of his military service, his youth, and his good looks.

All of those narratives are true, and flawed. Lamb was a remarkably unique candidate in an equally unique race. It’s still unclear whether other Democrats can use Lamb’s playbook to flip GOP seats this November, and it’s not even clear that Lamb himself will be able to use the same playbook in the midterms, when he’ll need to survive a Democratic primary after being hand-picked by party leaders this time around.

Consider a few of the most obvious takeaways from the race, several of which are contradictory and, not coincidentally, involve picking sides in the Democrats’ intraparty battle.

Lamb Won Because He Ran Against Donald Trump

Trump won this district by nearly 19 points just 16 months ago, and he made two separate campaign trips to specifically ask those Pennsylvanians who voted for him in 2016 to vote for Rick Saccone in 2018. And yet it was not enough to keep the seat from flipping from red to blue. Meanwhile, Lamb’s campaign benefited from the energy and cash (and ensuing media attention) that came from the interest and involvement of both the anti-Trump resistance and the progressive grassroots, two amorphous groups that often overlap. It’s hardly unreasonable, then, to see the special election results as a sign that Trump no longer has the blind support of the rural, white working-class voters who stuck by his side in 2016.

Lamb Won Because He Didn’t Run Against Donald Trump Too Much

And yet for all the anti-Trump chatter, little of it came from Lamb himself. He was careful to keep the race local and even went out of his way to say that he would look for opportunities to work with the president—something that is heresy in some progressive parts of the country. Furthermore, polls taken in the lead-up to the race suggest that a sizable slice of those Trump voters Lamb managed to win over nonetheless still approve of the job the president is doing. A Democrat who goes all-out against Trump is unlikely to have the same success Lamb did with any voters who have not fully turned on the president. That might not matter in a less partisan district, but in deep red ones like this it could prove the difference between a moral victory and an actual one.

Lamb Won Because He Ran as an Unapologetic Moderate

Lamb is pro-union but does not support raising the federal minimum wage to $15. He’s personally against abortion but for a woman’s right to chose. He’s in favor of tougher background checks but isn’t ready to ban assault rifles. He talks fondly about fracking and the environment. And like his opponent, he even voiced qualified support for Trump’s new tariffs on steel and aluminum. Looked at up close, Lamb has little in common with many of the progressive candidates hoping to flip GOP seats this fall.

Lamb Won Because He Was Progressive Where It Matters

But if you back up a bit, Lamb ran as a liberal on certain issues. He voiced support for expanding health care access, repealing the GOP tax cuts, strengthening unions, protecting the environment, preserving the social safety net, providing access to legal abortions, and legalizing medical marijuana. He ran on a remarkably progressive agenda in a traditionally conservative area, and he won.

Lamb Won Because He Ran Away From Nancy Pelosi

Saccone and his Republican allies tried desperately to tie Lamb to the House minority leader, but Lamb wasn’t having it. He made it clear early that he wants to see Pelosi replaced as his party’s leader in the House, a stance seen as a political necessity given her status as a boogeywoman on the right, along with her remarkable unpopularity pretty everywhere else.

Lamb Won Because He Ran Toward Nancy Pelosi

OK, no one thinks that. So eager was Lamb to distance himself from Pelosi that he took out campaign ads declaring, “I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.” But running against Pelosi was hardly a groundbreaking strategy. Congress is one of the least liked institutions in the nation, and its leaders serve as convenient targets for that American rage. Meanwhile, so much scorn has been heaped on Pelosi for so long—from the left, right, and center—that being against Nancy Pelosi is almost meaningless at this point. A West Coast democratic socialist thinks she’s too conservative; a Rust Belt centrist thinks she’s too liberal. And even if Pelosi really is the electoral anchor that some Democrats fear, Lamb’s victory suggests it’s not that difficult for a candidate to create the necessary distance from her.

Democrats will need to grapple with those competing narratives as they go about selecting midterm candidates this spring that they hope will ride a blue wave this fall, flipping control of the House and maybe even the Senate along the way. But the real reckoning will come when Democrats try to sort all this out in 2020.

If Lamb won because white, working-class voters liked his general centrist vibe, then Joe Biden would be well-positioned for 2020. If Lamb won because he loves unions and doesn’t hate guns, well, then Bernie Sanders might fare better with this particular slice of voters than many might expect. Or if Bernie comes with too much “socialist” baggage for you, Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown can offer their own tailored progressive pitches to the working class. The list goes on: If running military vets is the play, Seth Moulton might be worth a longer look than he’s so far gotten. If Lamb’s lack of a voting record was his secret weapon, then Mark Zuckerberg, Howard Schultz, and even Oprah could check that particular box.

Lamb was able to be many different things to many different people in a very particular slice of a very particular state. That explains his unexpected success on Tuesday, but it also makes it far more difficult to draw clear lessons from what was a very special special election.