Conor Lamb onstage with supporters
Conor Lamb onstage with supporters

“We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of win­ning. You’re going to come to me and go ‘Please, please, we can’t win any­more.’

– Don­ald Trump (May 26th, 2016)

Bar­ring a recount that pro­duces a dif­fer­ent out­come, young Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­gres­sion­al hope­ful Conor Lamb has eked out a nar­row vic­to­ry over Repub­li­can oppo­nent Rick Sac­cone in Penn­syl­va­ni­a’s Trump-friend­ly 18th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, con­found­ing Repub­li­cans and delight­ing Democ­rats across the country.

With 100% of precincts report­ing, these are the results:

  • Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date Conor Lamb: 49.84% (113,813 votes)
  • Repub­li­can can­di­date Rick Sac­cone: 49.56% (113,186 votes)
  • Lib­er­tar­i­an can­di­date Drew Gray Miller: 0.6% (1,397 votes)

Lam­b’s vic­to­ry is the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive promi­nent loss for Don­ald Trump and the Repub­li­cans, fol­low­ing Roy Moore’s defeat in Alaba­ma last December.

Pun­dits of all stripes are call­ing it an omi­nous devel­op­ment for Repub­li­cans, who have already lost scores of leg­isla­tive seats in spe­cial elec­tions around the country.

“We should be able to elect a box of ham­mers in this dis­trict. If we’re los­ing here, you can bet there is a Demo­c­ra­t­ic wave coming.”

Repub­li­can con­sul­tant Mike Murphy

Lamb was able to win by har­ness­ing the pow­er of a new­ly resur­gent Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty while appeal­ing to bicon­cep­tu­als by sim­ply being him­self. Trust and authen­tic­i­ty are what real­ly win elec­tions, and Lamb has it in spades.

Just watch his elec­tion night vic­to­ry speech.

There is a belief among some that vot­ers judge can­di­dates based on their issue posi­tions, and so to win in a con­ser­v­a­tive dis­trict, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date needs to have con­ser­v­a­tive issue posi­tions (or at least some) in order to win. But that is non­sense. Peo­ple do not vote for can­di­dates mere­ly based on what posi­tions they take on the issues; rather, they vote for who they iden­ti­fy with.

Research has borne this out, but old myths die hard.

Lamb did not need to run to the mid­dle to win — he sim­ply need­ed to be him­self and say what he real­ly believed. And that is what he did in his campaign.

Don­ald Trump sug­gest­ed at a pri­vate fundrais­er that Lamb was able to win because Lamb was like him — for tax cuts and irre­spon­si­ble gun laws and so forth. (Trump, of course, makes every­thing about him­self.) In an audio record­ing, Trump can be heard remark­ing: “I said, ‘Is he a Repub­li­can? He sounds like a Repub­li­can to me.’”

But that is com­plete rub­bish. To be more spe­cif­ic, it’s post-elec­tion spin that is at odds with what Trump and his cho­rus were say­ing about Lamb before Tuesday.

Again, if you lis­ten to Lam­b’s speech, you’ll hear him talk about pro­tect­ing Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare and the rights of work­ing peo­ple. Lamb is staunch­ly pro-labor, and he made sure to rec­og­nize and thank the unions and their mem­bers who sup­port­ed him while onstage. Those just aren’t things that a Repub­li­can says.

In real­i­ty, Lamb is a strong Demo­c­rat — as he said, a Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt Demo­c­rat — and his can­di­da­cy res­onat­ed with many vot­ers in west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia for that rea­son. It is said that the num­ber one rule in pol­i­tics is don’t alien­ate your base. Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates often vio­late this rule, but Conor Lamb man­aged to avoid that mis­take. He got his base fired up and moti­vat­ed to turn out.

He also impressed vot­ers with the qual­i­ty of the cam­paign he ran. The New York Times sent a reporter to Penn­syl­va­nia to prac­tice shoe-leather jour­nal­ism, and pub­lished a nice sto­ry full of quotes from peo­ple who actu­al­ly live in or near the dis­trict as opposed to self-pro­mot­ing pun­dits from far away.

Here are the most strik­ing quotes from that story:

“You have to give cred­it… He was clear­ly the best can­di­date they’ve run for this dis­trict. And not only the best can­di­date but he exe­cut­ed a strong campaign.”

– Mike DeVan­ney, local Repub­li­can polit­i­cal consultant

“I saw him at the fish fry at Our Lady of Grace… He just seems to bring a fresh perspective.”

– Vot­er Clare Rex

“I saw Lamb, Lamb, Lamb.”

– Sac­cone sup­port­er Chris­tine Sorbara

Although the final results show Lamb in the lead, Repub­li­cans have sig­naled they will chal­lenge the results based on “irreg­u­lar­i­ties”, which is rich indeed con­sid­er­ing how they have brushed aside Demo­c­ra­t­ic com­plaints about elec­tion integri­ty when the results have shown their can­di­dates ahead.

One of the Repub­li­cans’ com­plaints is that their attor­ney was­n’t allowed to observe the vote count­ing in Lam­b’s strong­hold of Alleghe­ny County.

The Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette dis­sect­ed this com­plaint at length, not­ing:

Coun­ty spokes­woman Amie Downs said that on Elec­tion Day there had been dis­cus­sions with Repub­li­can attor­neys about their abil­i­ty to over­see the vote-count­ing process. Under the state Elec­tion Code, she said, such observers must have a signed autho­riza­tion from the chair of the coun­ty com­mit­tee. “They did­n’t pro­duce that until the very end of the evening, when the bal­lots had already been scanned,” she said.

Mark Wolosik, who directs the coun­ty’s elec­tions office, said that late Tues­day morn­ing, “a call came in ask­ing about peo­ple being able to observe the [count­ing] process on Elec­tion Night.” Usu­al­ly, he said, “peo­ple ask ahead of time” rather than on Elec­tion Day itself.

Phone mes­sages were exchanged over the fol­low­ing hours, and even­tu­al­ly two Repub­li­can attor­neys arrived at the cen­tral tab­u­la­tion cen­ter, locat­ed in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Wolosik said that an attor­ney iden­ti­fied him­self as being “from the Sac­cone cam­paign,” but the Elec­tion Code only allows polit­i­cal par­ties, not can­di­dates, to dep­u­tize observers. A lawyer lat­er pro­duced an email pur­port­ing to show such autho­riza­tion, but Mr. Wolosik said he could­n’t accept that because “there was no sig­na­ture.” He swore in the observ­er after receiv­ing a signed authorization.

It sounds to us like the author­i­ties fol­lowed the law and treat­ed the Repub­li­cans fair­ly. If the par­ty want­ed observers in place from the get-go, it should have been more pre­pared. It is quite evi­dent Repub­li­cans were caught off guard by last night’s results. They had expect­ed Lamb to win Alleghe­ny Coun­ty, but they thought Sac­cone would over­take Lamb when the more con­ser­v­a­tive coun­ties reported.

When that did not hap­pen, they put their faith in the absen­tee bal­lots. Cable news out­lets report­ed the White House and local Repub­li­cans were opti­mistic about the absen­tee bal­lots break­ing in Sac­cone’s favor. But the absen­tee bal­lots enhanced Lam­b’s posi­tion, pre­serv­ing his slim lead and leav­ing Repub­li­cans angry.

Penn­syl­va­ni­a’s 18th Dis­trict will soon have new bound­aries thanks to court-ordered redis­trict­ing, so this spe­cial elec­tion will be the final event in the his­to­ry of this juris­dic­tion. But we would­n’t be sur­prised if Conor Lamb remains a part of Penn­syl­va­ni­a’s con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion for years to come.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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