The Democrats seem to be mass-producing Scott Browns.
First it was Jon Ossoff, the Georgia whiz kid reeking of progressive enthusiasm and tech upstarts, who lost to Karen Handel in a special House election last year. Now another model has emerged off their Wunderkind-o-Matic: Conor Lamb, the thirty-something Marine Corps vet who aimed to succeed former congressman Tim Murphy in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. Sure enough, last night Lamb skewered his GOP opponent Rick Saccone by the narrowest of margins, which, as of print time, has led him to declare victory, NBC to assent, and the Associated Press to say the race is too close to call. But even if the absentee ballots somehow inch Saccone ahead, Lamb will still have turned in an impressive performance in a scarlet section of Pennsylvania’s middle that just a year and a half ago Donald Trump won by 20 points. Democrats will now be hoping that Lamb really is another Scott Brown, that his victory will be the first whitecap on a wave that will restore them to congressional dominance, just as Brown’s election in Massachusetts heralded GOP gains in 2010.
Republicans, meanwhile, might be wondering how they managed to spend north of $10 million on a congressional district that come November isn’t even going to exist anymore. The GOP’s relationship with Pennsylvania has long been a tumultuous one. Involved in various political campaigns in college during the late aughts, I watched Republicans spend heavily trying to make inroads there, only to be rebuffed year after year. The boulder to the GOP’s Sisyphus, the key to the Keystone State, was what you might call John Updike’s Pennsylvania: suburban voters, and especially the ever-wealthier ones outside Philadelphia, whose libertarian-ish views were supposed to eventually gel with a modernized Republican program. Instead, 2016 saw Hillary Clinton actually run stronger in the Philly burbs than Barack Obama had—yet Trump became the first GOP presidential contender to win the state since George H.W. Bush. All the tedious post-Romney white papers admonishing Republicans to become more like Jon Huntsman immediately burst into flames. Trump had orienteered a path across the Electoral College that few thought possible, and suddenly the hardhats, not the soccer moms, had become the presidential kingmakers.
America in 2016 was (and still is) suffering from a host of problems, from opioids to the aftereffects of deindustrialization, from widespread unhappiness to a growing disconnect between its subcultures, from humongous debt to a hangover from failed wars—all of which disproportionately affected places like Pennsyltucky. Republicans won because, clueless though they often are, they looked better prepared to grapple with many of those crises, if only because Donald Trump was at least willing to acknowledge that the crises existed in the first place. The Democrats, meanwhile, seemed incarcerated by a news cycle that drummed only “Russia” and “Putin,” with whatever gaps that remained filled by their usual radioactive identity politics. That’s still true today, but voters, unconstricted by partisan straitjackets, can be unpredictable. Just as the famous “Obama-Trumpers” crossed from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump four years later, so, too, have many of them now migrated over to Lamb, apparently as unimpressed by Saccone as the president reportedly was. It’s a reminder that Trump won much of the Rust Belt because he sounded like a lunchpail Democrat of yore, an act that Lamb pulled off less boisterously but just as convincingly.
Saccone, meanwhile, seemed the regular-order politician, flush with money from distant grandees and remote apparatuses, supportive of right-to-work laws that many unions regard as an existential threat. Up against a bright young thing who wanted reform and nothing more, the 2016 roles were flipped. Still, Democrats shouldn’t over-egg their pudding. Whereas Brown’s upset was something of a political bonus, coming as it did in a state, Massachusetts, that even wayward son Mitt Romney never expected to persuade two years later, western Pennsylvania is exactly the sort of place that Democrats must win if they’re to become electorally viable again. And while Brown aimed himself directly at Barack Obama’s health care legislation, Lamb has sounded woolly-headed on abortion, postured as NRA Lite on guns, boasted that he won’t support Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader, backed Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, and refused to bash the president. “Yes, Democrats can win in Trump Country,” a conservative wag might aver, “so long as they’re actually Republicans”—and so long as those Republicans are actually old-line Democrats. American politics is nothing if not fluid.
Ultimately the biggest challenge Democrats still face is that most of their national activists are in no mood to behave like Conor Lamb. They prefer instead the hash tag solidarity of the Resistance and hourly conniptions over Trump’s alleged coziness with Moscow, with primary challenges already lined up against some of those who dissent. This has left them without a Tea Party, a new ethos infused with fresh ideas that seeks a break with the past, and turned them instead into an antimatter movement, the people you support if you want Trump out. That may be enough, especially given Trump’s combustibility of late and the natural proclivity of the electorate to check presidents two years in. Still, one can’t help but think that Democrats need a fresh start, and on Tuesday all they got was a fresh face.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.