In the special election to fill the vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District south of Pittsburgh, 33-year-old Democratic candidate Conor Lamb (Mt. Lebanon) has presented himself as part of a new generation of leaders, and he says voters are excited for the change he represents.
According to Lamb, his campaign is even drawing the support of Republicans and Independents.
“They're coming to our campaign office to let us know why they're supporting my campaign,” Lamb said, “The reason is because I have pledged to work with both sides to make progress.”
A win for Lamb in the special election would mark a significant change for the 18th District, which includes parts of Allegheny, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The district kept Republican Tim Murphy in office for eight terms until he resigned last year after reports claimed he asked a woman he was having an affair with to have an abortion, and it voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016.
A Democrat hasn’t run for the seat in more than five years, but Lamb, a Marine and former federal prosecutor, said he considers the job an opportunity to serve his country in a new way.
Lamb comes from a well-known family in western Pennsylvania politics. His grandfather was a state senator, and Lamb recalls campaigning as a kid for his uncle, Michael Lamb, Pittsburgh’s city controller.
“We always believed in my family that politics should be an honorable profession and that the word politician can be an admirable thing,” Lamb said. “So I came up with a very positive view of it.”
So far, Lamb’s campaign is emphasizing issues with broad appeal.
“I think the thing that unites us more than anything is the need to focus on economics, jobs, infrastructure, health care – the things that are affecting working- and middle-class families every day around our district,” Lamb said.
For a Democrat running in a socially conservative area, it could be wise to focus on these topics, and Republicans on the national level have taken notice of the race. The president and vice president have both appeared with Lamb’s Republican opponent, Rick Saccone, and millions of dollars are pouring in for TV ads that call Lamb a liberal.
Vice President Mike Pence raised doubts about Lamb’s views at a rally in Bethel Park this month.
“I heard he won’t say whether he supports your Second Amendment rights,” Pence said. “I heard Conor Lamb won’t say whether he supports giving your hard-earned tax dollars to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.”
While Lamb has said that, as a Catholic, he’s personally opposed to abortion, he supports abortion rights and federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“They perform a lot of vital health care services for men and women often in places where people don't have access to other types of healthcare,” Lamb said of the organization.
On guns, Lamb said there should be a conversation about stopping violent crime and the illegal trafficking of firearms – both issues that came up when he was an assistant U.S. attorney.
“For me, the issue is not that we need new laws on the books – I don't think we do,” Lamb added. “I think we have to strengthen our police and federal agents’ abilities to investigate and prosecute these crimes.”
With his background in law enforcement and the armed services, Lamb could be a good fit for the 18th, with its large veteran population, said Carlow University political science professor Allyson Lowe.
“You can see it in his ads – a call to military service, a call to sort of a law-and-order message – to really pull on some messages that have strong resonance across party lines,” Lowe observed.
For Lamb, those messages also include fighting the opioid crisis and sustaining funding for Medicare and Social Security.
To pay for such programs, Lamb said the government should stimulate the economy with large infrastructure projects and lower taxes for the middle class. He’s critical of the GOP’s recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
“Republicans in Congress had no problem adding a trillion-and-a-half dollars to our national debt so that they could give tax cuts to large corporations that pay virtually nothing in federal income taxes,” Lamb said.
At a time when companies continue to announce bonuses for employees and consumer confidence remains strong, it could be risky to criticize the tax plan. But, given that some Republican voters are having second thoughts about their party’s leadership, there could be an opening for a moderate Democrat like Lamb.