Republican incumbents in the House of Representatives running in purple states were already very concerned about the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections with a blue tsunami bearing down on them. Now after Conor Lamb’s victory in a special election in a deep red district in rural and suburban Pennsylvania, even Republicans running in supposedly “safe” red districts must also be feeling very uncomfortable. However, Democrats must still learn to successfully ride that huge wave to be truly successful next year. There lessons to be learned from Lamb’s campaign and they must be internalized for future use.
The first obvious take away is that Democrats must field excellent candidates for viable House seats. Lamb, an Ivy League graduate chose to serve his country as Marine Corp attorney after securing his law degree and is even now a Major in the Marine Corp reserve. He is the son of a political family, a federal prosecutor with a spotless record, and he had the backing of all of the local labor unions because they recruited him to run. When the Republicans panicked and turned to negative advertising, none of their attacks reverberated with the voters.
Putting forth similar high quality Democratic candidates in every race might normally prove to be difficult. However, in the coming round of elections the Democratic have the advantage of high expectations which should encourage the better candidates to throw their hats in the ring. Good candidates are understandably hesitant to step forward when their chances of winning are poor.
The second important lesson is that the Democratic/progressive base must maintain its present level of intensity and it will also be useful if Republicans remain conversely discouraged with their party. In a district which Trump won by twenty points this factor was crucial. Democrats were anxious to vote, Republicans not so much. This enthusiasm gap and the turning away from Trump by voters in the suburbs overcame the $10.7 million outside Republican groups including the Paul Ryan-aligned super PAC, Congressional Leadership Fund, and the National Republican Campaign Committee funneled into the race while Lamb receive only $2.7 million from Democratic groups.
However, it is likely that this factor will continue to be an advantage for Democrats through the 2018 campaigns. I fully expect that if Trump continues to maintain his outrageous behavior and unseemly spectacles continue to plague his administration on an almost daily basis (an almost forgone conclusion), Democrats and progressives will continue to experience a high level of agitation. It is also very likely that many Republicans will continue to be disenchanted and centralist independents will continue to turn away from the Republican Party in droves because it has become the party of Trump.
So it appears likely that the first two factors which were responsible for Lamb’s victory will continue to be Democratic advantages going forward. That makes the third deciding factor which contributed to Lamb’s victory all the more important. The most import aspect of his campaign was the fact that Conor Lamb was the only kind of Democrat that could have possibly won in a district that Trump won in a landslide and hadn’t sent a Democrat to Congress for 13 years, a centralist with some conservative leanings on key local issues.
True progressives might not be happy with Lamb’s positions on some issues they hold dear. On gun control he advocated a stronger system of background check but was opposed to new laws that would further restrict the public’s access to guns, presumably including the banning assault weapons. While he backed the Supreme Court’s decisions to legalize a woman’s right to choose, he also stated that he personally opposed abortions. In a bow to labor unions in his corner Lamb also supported Trump’s plans to proceed with tariffs to protect American manufactures despite the objections of the vast majority of liberal and conservative economists alike. Recognizing the distaste of many of the voters in his district had for Nancy Pelosi, he vowed to not support her if elected. As a prosecutor he favored maximum sentences for drug dealers.
On the other hand Lamb also favored supported treatment rather than punishment for opioid addicts. He also criticized Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare on which many of the voters in his district depended and he call for measures to stabilize the AHC markets. He also called the GOP tax bill a giveaway to the rich and strongly advocated more federal infrastructure spending in his district. His took a strong stance on opposing Paul Ryan’s plans; protecting Social Security and Medicare was particularly popular with the many retirees in the area. He also promised to work to secure the jobs and pensions of his constitutes and to protect their families.
In summery Conor Lamb’s stances on the issues were tailormade to reflect the attitudes and needs of his district. If he were exactly the same person but would have espoused the views of a Bernie Sanders or Elizabet Warren progressive, he would have probably been defeated in a landslide despite the fact that he is personally an excellent candidate who enjoyed very enthusiastic Democratic support. Republicans and conservative independents would have been energized by the existence of a “socialist” on the Democratic ticket.
The truism that “all politics are local” is especially applicable to elections to the US House of Representatives. Every house district is different with different issues being important to the local voters. In some cases an unfettered progressive would be the ideal Democratic candidates in deep blue districts. In purple districts the ideal candidate for the Democratic ticket might be someone more centralist on local issues and in deep red districts a Democratic might well be successful unless his/her views match that of the more conservative voters on questions of local importance.
What is important to realize here is that every Democrat elected to the House, regardless of his/her stances on individual issues, counts towards the ultimate goal taking over the majority of seats and thus assuming Democratic control of this chamber of Congress. In this political environment this is vitally important. The majority party is automatically able to appoint the chairman and a majority of the members of each and every House committee. For example, think of how important it will be for Democrats to control the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence which Republican Devin Nunez now chairs or the Justice Committee which provides oversight of the Justice Department including the FBI. Perhaps not as visible presently, but equally important is the ability of the party in power to control the Appropriations Committee which initiates legislation allocating of funding all government agencies, the Ways and Means Committee which, among other things, controls legislation on Social Security, the Financial Services Committee where new legislation on commerce and banking originates, and Oversight and Government Reform Committee which has health care legislation in its purview. Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Home Land Security, Transportation and Infrastructure . . . the list of very important House committees goes on and on.
On the other hand, perhaps one of the most important power granted to the ladership of the party in control House of Representatives is the ability to control what legislation comes up for a vote. For instance Paul Ryan will never allow legislation which would protect the Dreamers come up for a vote unless the both the majority of his party’s caucus and the President support it in advance. As a consequence, this important legislation will never see the light of day even though the majority of the Representatives would vote for it. And of course you understand how unlikely it is that a bill of impeachment would ever come up for a vote in the House, regardless of the findings of the Mueller investigation, as long as the Republicans remain in charge.
In light of these very important considerations one can easily see that it is important that we choose Democratic candidates who are a good fit for the districts where they will run. As is the norm in in Pennsylvania, a large majority of a Democratic committee voted for the nomination of Conor Lamb who they considered to be the best suited to carry the party banner, but in most jurisdictions candidates are selected in a Democratic primaries. What concerns me is that we progressives too often let ideological rigidity get in the way of making pragmatic political decisions. I am afraid that is some purple and winnable red districts progressives will unite to nominate ideological purists who will have no chance winning.
The only thing that to some extent alleviates that concern is the tendency for Democrats and progressives in purple and red districts to be more centralist in their political beliefs. That hopefully will supply the pragmatism which should lead to choices which will best match the districts political tendencies. However, I cannot stress enough that it is incumbent on each of to make the best choice possible for the success of the party regardless of our political convictions. It does us no good to be politically pure if we are politically weak in Congress.
And just one more thing – it is utterly stupid to waste votes on liberal independent and third-party candidates if they realistically have no chance of winning. Such stupidity draws votes away from the Democratic nominees and paves the way for Republican victories. In the face of the danger that Trump and his Republican enablers threaten daily, Democrats and progressive independents cannot allow internal ideological feuds to prevent us from acting in concert to take control of the levers of government.