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‘All Of It Is On The Line’: Conor Lamb Joins Race For Pennsylvania Senate Seat

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa, in Pennsylvania's 17th U.S. Congressional District, talks with reporters after voting in Mt. Lebanon, Pa. Lamb is running for re-election in 2020.
Gene J. Puskar
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa, in Pennsylvania's 17th U.S. Congressional District, talks with reporters after voting in Mt. Lebanon, Pa. Lamb is running for re-election in 2020.

In a race that he says may shape the fate of democracy — and will almost certainly offer clues to the future of the Democratic Party — Congressman Conor Lamb formally launched his bid to replace Pat Toomey in the U.S. Senate today.

“I think that our democracy is really on the line in this race and in 2022,” Lamb said in an interview with WESA prior to his formal campaign announcement Friday afternoon. “We really are facing opponents who are willing to try to overturn an election, cancel out people's votes [and] really shake the foundation of this system that we inherited in order to get what they want. And I believe that we have to be more determined than they are.”

“And I think that the same people that will lie about your vote, lie about the election, will lie about your paycheck and lie about the things that affect you and your family,” he added. “All of it is on the line.”

The Lamb campaign appears likely to turn on the melding of such pocketbook issues with concerns about the plight of American democracy in a hyper-polarized environment. His Friday campaign announcement took place at the IBEW Local #5 union hall in Pittsburgh’s South Side — an anchor location for Democratic candidates — and was attended by a number of supporters from both labor and the ranks of elected leaders.

The outcome of next year’s race to replace Toomey, a hardline fiscal conservative who announced his retirement last fall, may well determine control of the Senate, which is divided 50-50 but where Democrats have a functional majority. The state will be a national battleground— a familiar backdrop for Lamb, who vaulted into the national spotlight in a 2018 special election to replace Republican Tim Murphy after Murphy’s resignation. In a race that was widely seen as an early test of Donald Trump’s political might, Lamb campaigned as a Western Pennsylvania pro-union moderate whose first TV ad featured him firing an AR-15 and a pledge not to support Nancy Pelosi for House speaker.

Lamb has in fact emerged as a reliable Democratic vote on many issues, though he has bucked progressives priorities on some issues, like marijuana reform. In the interview, Lamb said he has tried to maintain a bipartisan approach — but it hasn’t been easy.

“If you really want to make something better for someone that only earns $12 an hour and you think they should earn $15 ... if you really want to make things like that better, you need a lot of votes,” he said. “The relationships that you've built mean a lot about how you can persuade other people to try to come to your position and help your constituents.”

Still, Lamb’s Jan. 6 denunciation of Republican efforts to overturn the election results nearly resulted in a physical confrontation between legislators on the House floor, and he says now that “the way I've seen Republicans behave in Washington for these two years, obviously the way Trump conducted his reelection and most of all, January 6th, I think I am much more aware of and wise to the depth of obstruction, disinformation, willingness to condone violence and overall just willingness to lie that exists at the heart of the Republican Party.”

HIs entrance into the race was decried Friday by Republicans who accused him of “sprinting to the left,” once elected to the House.

“If Conor is good at anything, it’s completely abandoning his principles and positions to pander to an electorate,” said Sean Parnell, a Republican Senate hopeful who Lamb bested in his re-election to the House last year. Parnell criticized Lamb for alleged hypocrisies such as “accepting police union endorsements but marching with radicals who want to defund the police” — an apparent reference to Lamb’s participation in Black Lives Matter marches last summer.

Lamb can’t expect to find the mood any lighter if he is elected to the Senate, where dysfunction also has been the order of the day. Lamb himself has called for the end of the filibuster— a delaying tactic used by the minority party whose abolition is sought by many Democrats — after Republicans stopped an effort to create a bipartisan commission to review the Jan. 6 attack.

Still, he said he’s running because “Things are so evenly divided in the Senate right now that that even one or two additional Democratic votes, I think, would mean a whole lot for our ability to get things done. …. [T]here still is a coalition there that is really trying to get things done. And I would like to be part of that because at the end of the day, we have to work together to get things done, especially things for the people who need it the most.”

Lamb will have to win the Democratic primary first, and that will mean besting a handful of already declared candidates — led by fellow Allegheny County resident and state Lt. Gov. John Fetterman — who have a head start.

Asked what separates him from that field, Lamb cited his experience in Washington and a proven ability to weather bruising campaigns.

“I've been working in Washington on basically all these issues [and] I’ve had the chance to work on them in Congress, build relationships across the whole spectrum of my party, across the aisle, in the administration,” he said. “We have to have serious legislators that know the history of this stuff and how to get things done.

“And then on top of that, I just think that I have run a campaign a lot like what this one is going to be,” he said. “Trump has been here personally himself, calling out my name, giving me nicknames. They've spent. I don't even know how many tens of millions of dollars against me at this point. ...When I talk to at least Democrats, what they say is we really want someone who can win. And I think I can offer that.”

Lamb, a former U.S. Marine Corps lawyer who went on to become a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office, arguably has run the gantlet more in the past three years than some politicians face in a lifetime. His 2018 win over conservative firebrand Rick Saccone came in a strongly pro-Trump district, and with massive spending by Republican groups such as the Congressional Leadreship Fund. In 2020, he narrowly eked out the win over Parnell — a Fox News fixture whose campaign was announced and backed by Trump — in a year where many down-ballot Democrats fell to Republicans.

But next year’s race will offer challenging terrain long before November. At a time when the Democratic Party increasingly relies on a racially diverse electorate for its victories — and as its progressive wing has been seeking to push it leftward — Lamb is seeking to join incumbent Bob Casey as Pennsylvania’s second male, Irish Catholic with a strong record on labor but moderate positions elsewhere. But Lamb, who has cautioned progressives against overreach, says Democrats should think broadly about the kind of movement that delivers wins.

“If we really believe in getting things done, in assembling coalitions that can win elections and then get all the votes behind legislation that we need on these big topics, we really need a lot of people with us,” he said. “We can't only use the language that is popular in a college classroom but not in a union hall.

“In the first eight months of this year, we have done the most productive and progressive legislating that I know of in my lifetime,” he said, citing coronavirus aid and changes to a federal child tax credit that will deliver hundreds of dollars a month to low-income families. “We did that because you elected Joe Biden president and you sent people like me back to Congress. … I will put those results against the arguments and tweets and speeches of anyone else in this race because I've been part of getting those actual results. And to me, that's what progressive is: It's making actual progress in real life.”

As for concerns about representing the party’s own electorate, Lamb said that “What I have found, talking to voters of all races — men and women, jobs and classes and all the rest of it — is that they mostly care about who can get results for them. …Everywhere I've gone, every different type of community, people have been very open-minded toward me and willing to listen. And I've done a lot of listening to them. That has really paid off for me and a lot of very diverse set of communities. I think it will again.”

*This story has been updated.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.