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Conor Lamb Beats Fellow Incumbent Keith Rothfus In Race For 17th Congressional District

Don Wright/AP, Conor Lamb for Congress
Republican Congressman Keith Rothfus (left) and Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb competed in Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District.

Democrat Conor Lamb has won the 17th Congressional District, earning his first full term in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

On Tuesday, Lamb beat fellow incumbent Republican Keith Rothfus. 

The congressmen ran in the nation’s only congressional race to pit two incumbents against one another. They were drawn into the same district following a court-ordered redistricting last winter.

Under previous district lines, on the left, Rothfus represented the 12th District, and Lamb served the 18th District. The current map, on the right, put both congressmen in the 17th District.

Rothfus congratulated Lamb on the win, and wished him well on the task ahead. He began his concession speech by talking about what Rep. Lamb said when he joined the House earlier this year.

“I’m not gonna forget the words that he spoke when he first addressed the House. He talked about how our rights do not come from the state but they come from the hand of God,” Rothfus said. “That is a fundamental principle of the American founding, it’s right in our Declaration [of Independence]. That we are endowed by our creator with...rights that nobody can take away. That among them are the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursuit of happiness. And that right is not contingent, it is not excluded from any member of the human family."

The new 17th District covers all of Beaver County and spans a swath of Allegheny County suburbs. It was considered friendly to Lamb because it added the Democrat's own South Hills Democratic base to Allegheny County's northern suburbs, while shedding many outlying areas, including Cambria County where Republicans have performed better. Rothfus had represented much of the new 17th since 2013.

The election came almost eight months after Lamb’s upset victory in a special election in the former 18th District, which had long been a bastion of GOP support. The March race propelled Lamb into the national spotlight, giving him significant name recognition in the matchup against Rothfus.

In what ended up being a relatively quiet race, the Democrat dominated on multiple fronts. He outraised his opponent by a 2-to-1 margin between July and September, for example. And, outside Republican groups pulled back spending in the district in the months leading up to the election.

Trump tried to drum up support for Rothfus on Twitter. He endorsed the candidate in September, and in October, he added that Rothfus was “in the fight of his life” due to the new congressional map. The representative, he said, was “strong on crime, borders, big tax & reg cuts, Military & Vets” and “must win.”

Polling showed, however, that the moderate Lamb held a low double-digit lead as far back as July and into October. A statement accompanying a Monmouth University poll in October concluded, “[Lamb] is better known and better liked than his three-term Republican opponent.”

The statement added that voters were driven in large part by their disapproval of Trump and concerns about health care.

Labor leader Darin Kelly organized union support for Lamb. Earlier in the night, before the race was called, Kelly said he was "extremely optimistic" about Lamb winning.

"[Lamb was able to touch] all walks of life because he spoke like the district," Kelly said, "He said, ‘I’m here to make sure this area is prosperous. It’s about the economy. It’s about jobs.’ When you have that simple message, it resonates with everybody.”

As a representative, Rothfus rarely broke ranks with the GOP. He voted in line with Trump’s agenda 89 percent of the time, according to an analysis by the site FiveThirtyEight. That included a vote for the American Health Care Act of 2017, which would have repealed the Affordable Care Act.

Rothfus argued that premiums and co-pays had skyrocketed under Obamacare. Lamb, meanwhile, was a staunch defender of the health care regime, though he acknowledged that costs had gotten too high for some patients. He said the government could help insurance companies to pay for unexpectedly expensive claims through a measure known as “reinsurance.”

Social Security was also a significant point of contention between the two candidates. In a district that has a higher proportion of seniors compared to the rest of the state, both candidates cast themselves as reformers when it came to ensuring the retirement program remains solvent.

But while Lamb supports a bill that would extend the Social Security tax to earnings over $400,000, Rothfus was less specific.

During the course of the campaign, the Republican repeatedly said a growing economy would bring more tax dollars to the program. He also suggested the government could cut costs by introducing private sector competition similar to prescription drug coverage through Medicare Part D.

Rothfus viewed last year’s GOP tax plan as crucial to stimulating the economic growth he so often touted on the campaign trail. While Lamb criticized the tax cuts as a giveaway to the wealthy and big corporations, he voted in September for a bill that would make the cuts permanent for individuals.

Last year’s law only locked in corporate rates. Lamb said the individual cuts – not corporate breaks – were worth keeping, even though they’re projected to add an estimated $3 trillion to the national deficit over the next two decades.

In the first of two debates ahead of the election, the Democrat warned that, Republicans would try to pay for the deficit by cutting popular programs. "Republicans are coming for Social Security and Medicare," he said.

Lamb has taken a softer tone when it comes to the possibility that Trump could face impeachment if Democrats win the House. During his first debate against Rothfus, Lamb said he's seen no evidence that would support such action. He added, however, than the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller should be allowed to complete its work.