Voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district today will decide whether to elect Republican Rick Saccone or Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election, the result of the vacated seat left by former Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned last year amid a scandal involving a former female staffer and an abortion. Spanning suburban and rural areas around Pittsburgh, the race is in a dead heat, with both parties’ PAC-money machines pumping the airwaves and social media outlets with opposition ads.
The special election was destined to become a media feeding frenzy, given that President Trump carried this district by a stunning 20-point margin in 2016, despite the fact that voter registration tilts slightly to the Democrats. Not surprisingly, the Dems are in rare form, with unceasing claims that a victory here would be a strong rebuke of Trump and of Trumpism.
As usual, the media has latched onto its narrative that the close race is evidence that Trump is losing support among his “white working-class” rust-belt voter base. But is it? Or is it merely evidence that Saccone has not been able convincingly to duplicate Trump’s efforts?
This special election reveals some inconvenient truths for both political parties and especially for movement conservatives. I have spent the better part of the last two months in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, where I grew up, immersed in the campaign battle, which has Republican Rick Saccone barely holding on as the favorite in the polls.
Saccone, the mustachioed 60-year old Pennsylvania House member, has touted his conservative credentials as a proud card-carrying NRA member with a voting record to match it. Coupled with Rick’s deep religious views reflected in his signature bill to keep “In God we Trust,” in Pennsylvania school buildings, Saccone is a firm believer in American greatness and has promised his loyalty to President Trump’s agenda. But he has failed to address how these positions do anything to help advance the interests of voters in his district.
Conor Lamb is a 33-year-old Democrat who has never held elected office and is threatening to upend Saccone’s plans. He has sparked remarkable enthusiasm in the district, in both suburban and in rural townships, offering a crossover appeal of a kind that Saccone simply has not been able to achieve. A Marine and former federal prosecutor, Lamb comes across both as polished and approachable. Importantly, he has cast aside left-wing talking points, and has taken rather conservative views about gun control, triangulating Saccone on that hot-button issue. He even went so far as to declare he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader, if elected. We’ll see, Conor.
The rigid media analysis of this race would suggest that Conor Lamb is doing well because he has moved to the political center, a shift that is essential for a Democrat today in a district such as this. That’s true as far as it goes, but these same observers would suggest that Saccone has seen his lead diminish as he clings to his core conservative beliefs to the distaste of more moderate Republicans and independents. This is hogwash.
I’ll offer a better explanation: people in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district are values voters. They value hard work, honesty, and perhaps above all, authenticity. On this last variable, Lamb has proven to be the stronger candidate.
During the campaign, Lamb has crafted his own persona, resisting the Left’s calls for a harsher line against the president. To the Democrats’ credit, their well-funded ad efforts have focused on Saccone’s record while serving as a state representative, especially his excessive expense account. Republicans have been downright lazy by comparison. Their PACs, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan’s congressional leadership machine, have poured millions into this race, with their chief message being that a “vote for Lamb equals one for Nancy Pelosi.” Is this the best Republicans can do? Lamb has said over and over he’s unwilling to support Pelosi, and voters were listening cheerfully, admiring his courage to stand up to his party’s leadership. Saccone should have taken that as an instructive point.
To the people of this Western Pennsylvania district, Republicans have appeared to be the party that is more guilty of an attempt to hoodwink them.
Whatever may be the result of Tuesday’s special election, Republicans should reflect upon their poor strategy during the course of the race. They should have helped Rick Saccone find his own voice early on, instead of pushing him to rehearse a series of checklist conservatism’s talking points at each campaign rally. Pledging fealty to Trump’s agenda but then sounding like the kind of conventional Republican who has never been popular in this district was a poor way to go about persuading the kinds of voters Trump was able to rally.
I have met Saccone several times. He is a good man who really wants to help his district. Unfortunately, coached as he was by GOP “experts,” his authenticity never came through. When he proudly stated that he was “Trump, before Trump was Trump,” many voters probably thought the claim rang false.
President Trump won in this Democratic-leaning district because the people here are exasperated with inauthentic candidates who cannot connect with voters out of fear of being politically incorrect. Trump gave it to them straight, and he vowed to restore an America that’s tough once again at home and around the world.
Voters here were not interested in conservative talking points then and they are even less interested now. Trump was simply a more believable candidate than Hillary was, and above all Trump understood that Western Pennsylvanians were tired of being lectured to by politicians about the benefits of unfettered free trade, given the disastrous economic conditions stemming from the steel industry’s decline.
If the GOP wishes to secure a healthy majority in Congress during the midterms this year, they should focus their efforts on letting candidates be ideologically flexible enough to go against the party line, especially in competitive “purple” districts. PAC money should not be used to message the same, tired and overused script in every race. We get it, “ x = a vote for liberal Pelosi . . .” and? Frankly, many voters don’t give a damn.
Voters like those in Western Pennsylvania would prefer to hear about the ways their taxes will be spent or misspent by the candidates involved in the race before them, not alleged connections to national party leaders or to an agenda that may or may not have their full-throated support.. This was the strategy the Democrats used, painting Saccone as an incompetent politician unworthy of voters’ trust. This message of incompetence and untrustworthiness filtered through TV and social media until it became associated with Saccone’s name, not someone else’s.
No matter the result this Tuesday, Republicans should be chastened by Lamb’s much more effective messaging. He appears to have understood that what the voters tire of hearing are warmed over talking points from the party leaders instead of evidence from the candidates themselves that they are actually connected to the needs and concerns of the voters in their districts.