Conor Lamb: A Case Study in Democratic Politics

Oscar Berry, Contributing Writer

Illustration Credit: Megan Kelliher


On the night of March 13th, 2018, Democrat Conor Lamb claimed victory in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district.

At first glance, Lamb would appear to fit in quite nicely with the Republican Party of today. He is personally opposed to abortion and is pro-gun. Lamb was running in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, which had not elected a Democrat since 2003. President Trump won the district by double digits and the district was rated as “solid Republican” by the Cook Political Report along with others. Lamb’s opponent, Rick Saccone, stuck by the Republican playbook, stood by the president on everything from immigration to tariffs, and seemed like any other politician. By all accounts, this election should have been in the Republican’s bag. Then how did Lamb triumph at the end of the day?

Conor Lamb ran a campaign that was quite unique in today’s political realm. He focused on “kitchen table issues,” tailoring his campaign to district-specific issues such as the heroin crisis, fleeing jobs, poor infrastructure, and social security payments.

To Thomas Healy, a high school student and Lamb campaign volunteer, “these issues [weren’t] as partisan and [were] important to almost everyone, so by avoiding traditional liberal issues and sticking with kitchen table issues that affect local politics, Conor won a lot of people over who wouldn’t have otherwise gone for him.” Indeed, social issues such as civil rights and immigration were limited, if not entirely absent, from his rhetoric.

Even more importantly, he made clear his difference from the Democratic establishment. Where most candidates tend to gravitate towards party leaders and prominent party policies, Lamb did the exact opposite. He publicly opposed Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and went so far as to release a campaign ad of him shooting a semi-automatic rifle. In this, he succeeded as branding himself as what some would call a “new democrat.” CRLS AP U.S. history teacher Mr. Montero affirms that Lamb was “much younger, had more energy, a new perspective, and made clear his lack of connection to the Democratic establishment.”

Secondly, in the words of many district residents, Lamb was a “mirror reflection of the district’s values.” He served in the United States Marine Corps for four years before working as a district attorney and then as a federal prosecutor.

Working for the Justice Department, he was part of several major drug-related cases, casting him as the right kind of man to tackle the opioid crisis and other drug crises. During Lamb’s campaign, many progressives were angered that he wouldn’t take more liberal positions on issues such as healthcare and social matters. Thomas argued instead that “a far left idealist in the district would have meant an instant Republican victory.” He continued, “so I think it’s time for Democrats to be more pragmatic and realistic about these elections.”

In an age when the political left is becoming more centered around progressive ideology, the Democratic Party might regain a congressional majority through the opening of the party to more moderates. Even so, Mr. Montero says, “Don’t count on it working in the long term.” He believes that resistance to the president and the Republican Party is tying Democrats together and clouding up ideological divides within the party. They will have to choose to prioritize certain issues in the future, and if they win a Congressional majority, these internal differences are going to boil over.

This piece also appears in our March/April print edition.