This Democrat Is Running for Congress—but Not Against Trump

In the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, Conor Lamb has split ways with the national party.

Jeff Swensen / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

WASHINGTON, Pa.—Tall and trim, with a square jaw and tidy brown hair, everything about Conor Lamb, the 33-year-old Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, is pleasantly inoffensive—like vanilla ice cream or a pair of well-pressed khaki pants. And people at the Giant Eagle grocery store loved him.

“He’s a cutie,” an older employee told me, arranging a rack of Stacy’s Pita Chips near the bakery department as Lamb walked by, greeting customers and employees alike. Ann, who declined to give her last name, is a union member who’s worked at the store for 20 years. She told me she usually votes for Democratic candidates, but when I asked her if that’s why she likes Lamb, she raised her eyebrows and asked, “Is he a Democrat?” She didn’t know his party; she just liked him. “He’s clean and he speaks well,” Ann said. “We need fresh blood. We need to get all those old fogies out.”

Lamb, a former federal prosecutor and a Marine, is running against the Republican Rick Saccone to fill the congressional seat vacated by Tim Murphy, the district’s longtime Republican representative. Murphy resigned in October after it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair and asked his mistress to get an abortion. Despite having 70,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, the district—which encompasses parts of Allegheny, Washington, Greene, and Westmoreland Counties—tends to elect Republicans: Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by 20 points in the 2016 presidential election, and Mitt Romney and John McCain both won by similar margins. Murphy, who held the seat for 15 years, ran uncontested in the last two elections.

But for the first time in decades, the race is competitive. Just a week before the March 13 special election, polls suggest that Saccone’s lead is shrinking: A recent Monmouth University poll showed that Saccone has a narrow three-point point advantage, and on Wednesday, the Cook Political Report upped the seat’s rating from “Leans Republican” to “Toss Up.” Outside PACs have spent millions supporting Saccone, and Trump will visit the area for a second time next week—both signs that Republicans are growing more and more worried.

Democrats in the area are excited to finally have a candidate with a fighting chance, but one reason for Lamb’s success is that he’s taken a different approach than the national party. While many Democrats invoke Trump at every opportunity, Lamb is one of the few who isn’t bashing him. If Lamb succeeds or even comes close on March 13, his race might provide a blueprint for how other Democrats in heavily red districts can win in the midterm elections this fall: by appealing to the same voters Trump did—and criticizing the actions of the Republican-led Congress, rather than the president himself.

Despite media coverage that tends to frame special elections as referendums on the president, Lamb has been careful not to present his candidacy as a way to oppose Trump. Yes, Trump is a historically unpopular leader, and Lamb is running against a Republican who once bragged that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” But as members of the campaign team reminded me repeatedly, Lamb wants to focus solely on local issues, and doesn’t want the race to become a tribal contest.

Near the meat counter in the grocery store, Lamb started to introduce himself to Norma Holmes and her friend Pat, but Holmes interrupted him. “Oh, we know you!” she said warmly. Wielding a cart full of Utz salt-and-vinegar potato chips, Holmes explained that both she and Pat have family in the steel industry who are proud union members. “We’re the middle people,” Holmes told Lamb. “And we need help.”

Holmes said she’s voting for Lamb for three reasons: “He’s not a politician. He served the country. He’s refreshing.” The two middle-aged women are both registered Democrats, but Pat actually voted for Trump in 2016. “I go both ways,” she told me, smiling. Lamb “is refreshing. I just hope he doesn’t change.”

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After Lamb finished glad-handing customers, he joined me in a booth at the Starbucks in the front of the store. I asked about the Democrats’ messaging leading up to the midterms, but he wasn’t interested in the question. “I’m really only thinking about the people who live here,” he said, his hands folded on the table. “I don’t really care what the future of the party looks like.”

Saccone’s supporters continue to link Lamb with Nancy Pelosi in ads, but Lamb has pledged that he won’t support the 77-year-old House minority leader. “It’s nothing personal,” he explained. “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. I don’t think he’s done a thing for this part of the country.” Hitting the speaker is a theme in Lamb’s campaign, a message he clearly believes will resonate more with voters than bad-mouthing Trump. “Not only does [Saccone] support Paul Ryan,” Lamb said during a recent campaign stop. “His entire campaign is being funded by him, and all of his ideas come out of Paul Ryan’s book.”

Lamb never mentioned the president by name in our conversation. When I asked what he thought of Trump, the Democrat sat up taller and sounded slightly—almost imperceptibly—agitated: “We need the office of the presidency to succeed if we’re gonna make any progress on these issues,” Lamb said firmly. “The number-one thing people talk about is wanting to get someone down there who’s actually gonna attack the problem, not attack the other side.”

Lamb calls himself a “Western Pennsylvania Democrat,” which seems to him to mean focusing on things like labor issues, the opioid crisis, and the need to protect entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. Lamb’s emphasis on these particular items is an effort to endear him to the same voters who supported Trump—perhaps the same people Trump referred to in his 2016 victory speech as the “forgotten men and women of America.”

The congressional district has more than 87,000 union members, and Lamb is leaning heavily into labor issues. Trump did well with labor’s rank-and-file, producing a 13-point swing in his favor compared with Romney four years earlier. Lamb has been endorsed by most labor unions in the area, and on Tuesday he attended a march through downtown Pittsburgh as the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing a case that could deal a serious blow to organized labor. Saccone, meanwhile, has taken the opposite tack, endorsing right-to-work legislation and declining to meet with labor leaders.

The other issue on which Lamb appears laser-focused is the opioid crisis. More than 4,600 fatal overdoses occurred in Pennsylvania in 2016. The former federal prosecutor said his years spent working on heroin cases inspired him to run for office in the first place. He’s pushing for longer and more-affordable treatment programs. “It’s not easy, and it’s not cheap,” Lamb told me, “but we should expect enough from our government that they should be able to get that done.”

Lamb has taken relatively conservative positions on a few key issues. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, Lamb reiterated his stance that the best way to prevent mass shootings is to strengthen background checks and make mental-health treatment more accessible, rather than banning a particular kind of firearm. He also supports fracking, and believes that “life begins at conception,”—although on Monday, the Democrat said he doesn’t support proposals to ban abortion after 20 weeks.

Some on the right think that Lamb’s positions are disingenuous and inconsistent. A recent ad from the super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund hit Lamb for being a “two-faced” liberal, adding that “he’ll say anything to get elected.” The Saccone campaign recently referred to him as “Conor the Chameleon.”

“He has certainly mastered the politician speak,” Patrick McCann, a spokesman for the Saccone campaign, said in an interview. While Saccone has been a state representative for years and can’t claim to be the same political outsider that Trump was, neither can Lamb. Although he’s never held political office before himself, Lamb comes from a long line of politicians. His grandfather was once the Democratic majority leader of the state senate; his uncle is the current controller of the city of Pittsburgh. “There’s a big dynasty political family here,” one Republican strategist, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign, told me. “He can try to run as the outsider and the independent, but … that’s life.”

Republicans are confident that voters who support Trump won’t buy Lamb’s rhetoric, and will turn out for Saccone. Linda Monaco from Prosperity, Pennsylvania, is one such voter. The 64-year-old, who voted for Trump and described herself as a “die-hard Republican” approached Lamb at the Giant Eagle wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and offering bad news. “I like you as a person,” she said, shaking his hand. “I just wish you were a Republican!” Nothing he said could get her to cross party lines, she vowed.

“He’s a smart kid, and the people around him are smart and know that you can’t run as a traditional Democrat in that seat,” the strategist told me. “He’s trying to walk the line and appease Democrats and Republicans, but the problem is every time he says something he’s going to alienate one of those groups.” Indeed, some of Lamb’s more progressive supporters told me they wish the Democrat was more outspoken about the president or the need for tougher gun legislation. And neither liberals nor conservatives seem totally satisfied with his stance on abortion.

But as much as Lamb’s line-straddling strategy is controversial, it seems to be working for enough voters to have made given him a shot in the race.

* * *

I spent Monday afternoon with Christina Proctor, driving around hilly Canonsburg in her silver Kia. Proctor, a stay-at-home mom with two children, is the recently elected president of the Washington County Democrats, and spends two or three days a week knocking on doors for Lamb. When she talks about him, she calls him “Conor,” like she’s known him for years. “When I first heard Conor, I thought, ‘This is him,’” she said. “He listens. He’s not just saying, ‘This is what I think, this is what I think.’ He listens.”

Proctor pulled over in a quiet neighborhood right off Highway 19, about a half-hour drive from downtown Pittsburgh, and started knocking. Small stone rabbits with glass eyes lined the walk of one of the first houses, where Lee Wilson answered the door in her pajamas. The 62-year-old registered independent said she plans to vote for Lamb because “he’s middle of the road,” adding that improving local infrastructure and preserving Social Security and Medicare are her two biggest concerns. “I’m afraid the Republicans are gonna take away what they call the entitlements,” she said, “the things we work for our whole lives.”

Down the street, a 66-year-old retiree in a Steelers sweatshirt answered the door of a two-story brick house. A registered Republican, the woman said she’s disappointed with her party and the “shenanigans going on in Washington, D.C.” She voted for Trump—and still likes him—but she can’t stand his tweeting. She’s planning to vote for Lamb in the special election. “Party lines I don’t have a problem crossing,” she said.

A few minutes later, after Proctor and I were halfway down the block, that same woman chased us down in a bright red car, honking. When I got to the window, she made me promise not to publish her name. “If that comes out, there’s gonna be family issues.”

Registered Democrats, too, are thrilled to finally have a viable candidate, and most of the ones I spoke with appreciated Lamb’s moderate stance. “I just think he is a wise candidate that realizes that compromise is what this country needs right now,” Mary Ann Raymer, a retired elementary-school principal and lifelong Democratic activist, said. “Even if it’s small steps in certain directions, like gun control, that’s the way you’re going to have to approach it.”

Raymer and I sat together in the living room in the home of Bob and Marsha Miller. The couple has been hosting a phone-banking session in the Bethel Park borough of Pittsburgh every Monday for the past five weeks. I stopped by their house on a chilly night last week to find a group of men and women from the neighborhood hunkered over a long dining-room table and drinking decaf coffee, all talking on the phone with voters from the district.

Of course, some of the grassroots activism in this district has been motivated by frustration with Donald Trump, but most of the Democrats I spoke with were spurred to action through Mondays With Murphy, an organization started in 2017 to protest their former representative’s refusal to meet with them. For months, Raymer and dozens of other members of the group stood outside Murphy’s office on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon, a nearby borough, every Monday at lunchtime, holding signs and chanting.

Bob Miller, the retired salesman hosting the event, cut his activist teeth at Mondays With Murphy. He and his wife, Marsha, used to be Republicans; both voted for George W. Bush in his first and second terms, but as the Iraq War played out, they switched parties. “Since then our mantra has kind of been, we didn’t leave the party, the party left us,” Miller explained. “The GOP wants to make [this race] a referendum [on Trump],” he continued, shaking his head, “but Conor is not running on an anti-Trump campaign. His position is a bipartisan position.”

I listened for more than an hour, while several women made phone calls to PA-18 voters around the Millers’ table, their elbows resting on the floral tablecloth. “This is my first time doing this ever, because of Conor,” I heard one volunteer, Susan Leis, tell another over the din of conversation. I asked Leis what she meant. “Everything he’s saying spoke to me,” said the 55-year-old, who said she’s voted for both Democrats and Republicans in past elections. “This whole [political] atmosphere is so divided—so far left, so far right. But when he talked, he was talking about our problems.”