Last week in Pennsylvania special election, Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Republican Rick Saccone in a congressional seat Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. What can candidates learn from this?
Though Lamb only won by 627 votes, this victory is quite significant.
Not only did Trump pummel Hillary Clinton here, but Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District has been considered so safely Republican that Democrats didn’t even field a candidate here in either 2014 and 2016.
At first glance it’s easy to dismiss Lamb’s victory here as another referendum on President Trump and as a harbinger that Democrats will take over the House of Representatives this November.
Nancy Pelosi shouldn’t start polishing her Speaker’s gavel just yet.
A former Marine and a federal prosecutor, Conor Lamb isn’t a Democrat cut in the cloth of Ms. Pelosi.
While enthusiasm is clearly higher among Democratic voters than Republicans right now, that’s not the reason why Lamb beat Saccone in Trump Country.
One of the big reasons Conor Lamb won this special election is because he absolutely fits this district.
As Peggy Noonan wrote this weekend:
Tuesday night voters chose a man who won’t cut entitlements, supports tariffs to protect the steel industry, opposes a ban on assault weapons, supports union members, opposes Nancy Pelosi, and allows no criticism of Donald Trump.
Which sounds like they elected Donald Trump.
That’s right. Conor Lamb won a seat that voted overwhemingly for Donald Trump by virtually parroting Trump while distancing himself from the leader of his party.
Now am I suggesting this was a ruse and that (pardon this overused cliche) that Conor Lamb is a wolf in sheeps clothing?
What I am saying is that unlike John Ossoff in Georgia last year, Lamb fits the Congressional District where he ran.
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.
It’s true Lamb probably wouldn’t fare well in California or Massachusetts, but as the results prove, his positions play very well in these communities south of Pittsburgh.
It’s yet another reminder of what we see time and time again in politics.
If you want to win an election, you need to fit your district.
Your views need to align with a majority of the voters.
The voters in this congressional district voted for Trump, are pro-union, pro-second Amendment, and are turned off by the political elitism associated with San Francisco.
Conor Lamb understood this and his campaign was basically “me too.”
This isn’t deceitful (unless Lamb’s being dishonest), it’s smart politics.
Voters want to elect representatives who share their views and understand their frustrations.
In 1992, Bill Clinton told America “I feel your pain” and somewhat unexpectedly beat George Bush.
Conor Lamb more or less did the same in Pennsylvania last week.
He told the voters that he wasn’t going to Washington to impose the federal government’s views on them.
Rather he was going to Washington to take his constituents views to the government.
Yes, it helped that Democrats are quite fired up right now.
That enthusiasm definitely helped Conor Lamb on the voter turnout front.
And it may very well help with turnout for Democratic candidates this fall.
As FiveThirtyEight points out, Democrats are over performing in special elections since 2017.
However, there’s some important history that should be taken into consideration.
In 2006 when Democrats took control of the House of Representatives away from Republicans, it happened by recruiting candidates who fit the district where they ran.
These candidates didn’t align completely with the Democratic Party platform on abortion and other key issues.
In other words, the party found candidates like Conor Lamb to run in allegedly safe Republican districts.
And many of those candidates won, giving Democrats their first majority in the House since 1994.
So what does all of this mean to you if you’re not running for congress or are in a non-partisan race?
Like Conor Lamb, you need to fit the district where you are running.
You need to know where your voters stand on the issues.
You have to spend time with them, understand their fears and frustrations.
Then you need to put together a winning campaign message based on what you learn.
You need to promise to fight for them on the things that are important to them.
That’s how elections are won time and time again, just as we saw in Pennsylvania last week.