Suburban Pennsylvania voters may reshape the national political landscape this year, and that’s especially true in places like the 17th Congressional District outside of Pittsburgh, where Democrat Conor Lamb is being challenged by Republican Sean Parnell.
In 2018, Lamb narrowly won a special election in a district Trump carried by double digits. He ran on issues like protecting health care through the Affordable Care Act and preserving Social Security. Now, he believes those issues are even more important, because the pandemic has highlighted the need for accessible health care, which he says Republicans want to strike down.
“I don't want to be hysterical here, but that is almost as close as you can get politically to directly harming people and even giving them a death sentence in this environment,” Lamb said. “It's just the wrong thing to do.”
Lamb represents the Allegheny County suburbs, Beaver County, and part of Butler County. He lives in Mt. Lebanon, and served in the U.S. Marine Corps before working as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh. In Congress, he serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the Science Committee.
He said since Democrats have regained control of the House, they’ve tried to strengthen the Affordable Care Act with provisions that would allow the government to negotiate over drug prices. Those measures have been thwarted by Republicans, but Lamb said he hopes in Congress’s next session, a Biden administration can create a national testing strategy and address the economic fallout from the pandemic.
“Because people haven't gotten help all these months, they're going to be behind on their bills," Lamb said. "They're going to need help avoiding eviction -- the worst thing you can do in a winter pandemic is throw people out of their homes. Small businesses are going to need another round of funding -- especially ones that really rely on getting bodies inside of their buildings and they haven’t been able to do that.”
Lamb’s rival is first-time candidate Sean Parnell. He’s a mortgage consultant, author, and decorated army veteran who lives in Ohio Township. Parnell’s campaign ads tout his military service and emphasize an average-American persona, like a recent TV ad in which he jokes that while “I thought I was a tough guy who made tough choices" in Afghanistan, he now has a daughter who "makes the tough choices” about clothes and hair.
Parnell has offered a more polarizing presence during appearances on conservative talk shows like Fox and Friends, where he’s a contributor.
“The idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to be successful, the idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to have a baby, the idea that a woman could live a happy and fulfilling life without a man -- it’s all nonsense,” he said in a September 2019 segment on the show UN-PC. “And the truth of the matter is men and women need each other we elevate one another.”
Parnell later said his remarks were intentionally provocative. But he’s aligned his campaign with President Trump, who is lagging in as polls show Trump lagging across Pennsylvania, particularly with suburban women. The President announced Parnell was running for Congress when he spoke at an oil and gas convention in Pittsburgh last fall.
Parnell declined to participate in an interview for this story. But he did address issues like health care in a WPXI Channel 11 debate against Lamb in September. Parnell said he wants to replace Obamacare with a plan proposed by North Carolina Republican Sen. Tom Tillis. According to policy analysts, that plan would maintain protection for those with pre-existing conditions, but also allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for the elderly and other at risk groups.
Republican Rick Saccone, who ran against Lamb and lost in the 2018 special election, says Parnell is right to emphasize conservative points on health care.
“I think it's good he aligns himself with President Trump,” Saccone said. “President Trump still is popular in the district. We've said over and over and over that yes we're going to repeal Obamacare but we're going to replace it with a better plan that does respect existing conditions."
For their part, Republicans have tried to tie Lamb to his party’s national leadership, repeatedly faulting Lamb for voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 92 percent of the time.
But Lamb points out the vast majority of bills he voted for had support from at least one Republican too.
“And the reason for that is we know there are Republicans in the Senate and a Republican in the White House,” he said.
University of Pittsburgh professor Lara Putnam says winning in the 17th district itself requires straddling some deep divides: The district includes both white working class communities, where traditional Democratic strength has been waning, and college-educated suburbs where Democrats are on the rise.
“Pennsylvania is a swing state because it encompasses within it trends that are jostling American politics, that are hitting hard in opposite directions at the same time,” Putnam said. “And this district itself also encompasses within it so many different communities that are critical to national politics.”