A lot of people are citing Conor Lamb’s Pennsylvania special election victory last Tuesday as a sign of turning tides in our political atmosphere. And it’s definitely a bolstering outcome for Democrats who are aiming to win back the House and Senate.
But the picture painted by Lamb’s win should not be one of unequivocal blue dominance in a red district—because Lamb wasn’t your typical blue politician (at least not in this day and age). The 33-year-old is a Marine veteran and Catholic. He personally (though not politically) opposes abortion, has called for changes to the Affordable Care Act, emphasized the importance of bipartisanship, and said he would oppose an assault weapons ban. On economic issues, Lamb is a union supporter who backs President Trump’s tariff plan.
As Bill Scher put it for Politico, “[Lamb] took some positions from out of each camp’s bucket, all while brandishing his assault rifle.” When Washington County’s newspaper endorsed Lamb, they called him “the kind of moderate, conciliatory figure that is needed in this tempestuous moment in our political life.”
It’s likely Lamb’s careful centrism will drive politicians and pundits in both political camps crazy. Already, he’s getting heat for not giving more vitriolic talking points on Trump. When NBC reporter Kasie Hunt tried to get Lamb to say something critical of the president during an interview, he blatantly refused her bait:
Conor Lamb has no comment on whether President Trump is a stable commander in chief based on today’s events.
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) March 13, 2018
One Guardian reporter said “Lamb has been almost painfully non-controversial.” In an age in which hating Trump is a badge of honor in the Democratic Party—and hating the Democrats usually serves as an equal badge in the Republican camp—Lamb seems sure to stir up controversy the moment he steps inside the Capitol building, if not before.
But in choosing not to align himself perfectly with one party or the other, Lamb actually did what politicians are supposed to do: he embraced a more gray and a more diverse platform, one that appeals to the interests and beliefs of the voters in his district. Lamb represents an old-school style of union Democrat who allows for flexibility and realism. That means he may not pass an ideological purity test—but it also means he appealed to the Trump Democrats and more moderate conservatives in his district. That ability to look past red and blue issues and instead offer a localized realism is probably the best way Democrats can defeat Republicans in future elections—because it’s specific and generous, rather than polarizing and absolutist. And Republicans right now aren’t doing a great job offering that sort of integrity and localism.
Consider the politician who Lamb is replacing: incumbent Republican Senator Tim Murphy, who stepped down from office after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that he tried to talk his mistress into getting an abortion. Murphy was supposed to be a strong pro-life candidate and principled conservative. Turns out that was merely a façade.
Republicans chose “Jurassic-era conservative” Rick Saccone to run in Murphy’s stead. Saccone boasted he was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” and cut attack ads trying to defeat Lamb (who, in the meantime, was out campaigning door-to-door). He (like many Republicans of late) tried to run on anger, and he lost. Even Republicans didn’t turn out to vote for him.
Lamb, by contrast, offered voters the moral consistency they needed post-Murphy: he’s a Catholic who opposes abortion on principle, even if he doesn’t think it should be outlawed. He emphasizes “common ground” in a political arena that’s grown both vitriolic and stagnant. And like Trump, he says he will work for the unemployed and hurting workers of his district who have been ignored by the white-collar bigwigs in Washington. It’s not hard to see why a distant and seemingly angry Republican would lose to someone like that.
In an article for the New York Times published Wednesday, Tom Ferrick compared Lamb to the Pennsylvania 18th’s own Senator Bob Casey, who beat conservative Rick Santorum in a U.S. Senate race back in 2006. “In another era, Mr. Casey would be called a centrist,” Ferrick writes. “Now, he’s too conservative for progressives and too liberal for conservatives. The only people who like him are the voters.”
The biggest concern here is that Lamb will be pressured to toe the party line in Washington, and to put the interests of his constituents second to the demands of his party. But that’s exactly the attitude that has brought us a schismatic and extremely polarized Washington, one in which no one is willing to compromise or converse, and in which every new bill is a line drawn in the sand.
Some Democrats are saying Lamb’s centrism is the way forward for all races in the fall—but that hardly seems like a winning strategy either. Lamb ran for Senate as a representative of Pennsylvania’s 18th. One would hope a politician running for office in an extremely progressive, cosmopolitan district would run a different campaign—not merely for utilitarian reasons, but because they recognize the local spirit and desires of their constituents.
The point of Lamb’s win is that we should not try to impose some nationalized process or pattern on politicians who are meant to support and represent their districts. America is a smorgasbord of political proclivities and passions. Lamb should not have run like Hillary Clinton, whose cosmopolitan elitism made her seem distant and apathetic toward many within Rust Belt America (her cringe-worthy “basket of deplorables” comment serves as one example of such an attitude).
Meanwhile, Lamb’s win offers an important lesson to Republicans who don’t want to lose Congress in the following months: don’t run like Trump—on vitriol, polarization, and aggrandizement. Don’t offer more Tim Murphys, who say one thing and do another. A politician with character, nuance, and love for his community can still appeal to voters, even (perhaps especially) those discontented with the Washington status quo.
Regardless of the impression left by the schismatic political debates we watch on TV, a lot of people still prefer their politics to be respectful, nuanced, and local. Or at least, they used to. I think many more could be wooed to such a stance if only they had politicians of caliber to vote for.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.