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By David Weigel,
Five weeks before a special election in a deep-red stretch of Pennsylvania, Democrat Conor Lamb released what proved to be a persuasive commercial in his likely upset.
Against the backdrop of black-and-white images of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), an announcer warns that Republicans are “coming after Medicare.” Lamb, off camera, said that Republicans viewed social insurance “as if it’s undeserved, or if it’s some form of welfare.” On camera, he made it personal.
“You know, I met a guy the other day who’s 65, and he’s taking care of his 14-year old niece, because there’s nobody else to do it,” said Lamb. “And if you mess with his Social Security, he won’t be able to take care of her anymore. That’s all people want to do.”
Republicans had been on the airwaves for weeks, hoping to negatively define Lamb as they had successfully done with other Democrats. Lamb’s commercial cut through the onslaught. On the trail, the candidate began to notice voters perking up when he mentioned Ryan, or finishing his sentence when his stump speech hewed closely to the ad.
On Wednesday, after Lamb declared victory based on a 627-vote lead unlikely to be overturned by re-canvassing or military ballots, Democrats and Republicans alike described him as a unique talent. Republicans, pointing out that Lamb posed with a rifle in one ad and opposed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in another, described him as a “conservative” whose success could not be repeated elsewhere.
But Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine Corps veteran and former prosecutor who will not be eligible for Social Security until the year 2046, combined his strong biography with a tight economic message — the sort of message, say Democrats, that they fumbled away in 2016.
“Trump campaigned on economic issues, like expanding health care, getting people back to work and being a champion of the working class,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who challenged Pelosi for leader in 2016 and rallied with Lamb in the election’s final week. “He flip-flopped on all of that, and it left an opening. Look at Election Day. Trump’s flying to California to talk about a border wall, he’s causing chaos in the State Department, and people in Pennsylvania are saying, ‘Hey, Conor Lamb is looking out for me.’ ”
Lamb, who had never run for office, grew up in a political family that’s still well known in Pittsburgh. Thomas F. Lamb, his grandfather, spent 16 years as a legislator in Harrisburg, leading his party to a majority and establishing the state’s community college network. His uncle Michael Lamb has been Pittsburgh’s city controller since 2008; Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is the county seat, backed the younger Lamb’s congressional bid by 15 points.
The younger Lamb followed a career path — the Ivy League, the Marines, the crusading U.S. attorney’s office — that was always headed toward politics. In October, after longtime congressman Tim Murphy resigned in disgrace, Democrats and labor leaders approached Lamb about running. He declared on Oct. 15 and bested six Democratic rivals at the party’s nominating convention one month later — an early sign of his organizational clout.
Lamb’s campaign avoided hiring D.C.-based consultants, and its ad firm, AKPD, was founded by Barack Obama campaign veterans originally based in Chicago. Abby Murphy, Lamb’s campaign manager, had worked most recently for Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign; Coleman Lamb, the candidate’s brother, returned from a job on Capitol Hill to handle the media.
The strategy was simple: Organize, put the candidate on the ground, and don’t make headline-grabbing news. By Election Day, the campaign itself had worked with 913 volunteers, who knocked on 256,180 doors and made 463,747 phone calls. It got backup from labor unions — all of them, from the United Mine Workers of America to the Service Employees International Union, organized for Lamb.
The candidate, meanwhile, kept the race focused on local issues and on the Republican Congress. Not one of his campaign ads mentioned the president, but several attacked Ryan. A Republican tracker who uploaded Lamb’s speeches to YouTube found nothing that Republicans deemed to be worth using in attack ads.
Lamb was also judicious in whom he invited to the district. House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) donated to his campaign and stumped for him, as did Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and former vice president Joe Biden.
On the ground, they found what Lamb had learned early — some Trump voters were winnable, and reliable Democratic voters were going to vote for Lamb no matter what. One Republican super PAC sent mailers to Democrats warning them that Lamb opposed new gun laws in the wake of school shootings and that he had broken with his supporters in the labor movement by opposing a $15 minimum wage. (Small businesses, Lamb said, were against it.) He also opposed the brief government shutdown that Democrats hoped to use for a vote on protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
There was no evident backlash from liberals, as turnout in blue Allegheny County was higher — 67 percent of presidential election levels, according to the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman — than turnout in the more conservative parts of the district. Lamb’s targeting ensured that they heard what he wanted them to hear, that he would work with Republicans on what they liked and oppose them on what they didn’t. On election night, Lamb quoted just one Democrat: Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“He taught us all that people have a right to know that their government walks on their side of the street,” Lamb said. “I’ll work on the problems our people face: Securing their jobs and pensions, and protecting their families.”