On a recent Sunday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D - Mt. Lebanon) made the rounds in a sunny park pavilion packed with supporters. It was a family-friendly meet-and-greet, with a balloon artist and giant checker board for the kids. For the Democratic congressman, it was a familiar scene.
He’s been campaigning for most of the past year after launching a successful bid last fall to replace former Republican Congressman Tim Murphy. Lamb remembered that special election was a hard-fought battle in a deep-red district.
“But we knew that if we worked together and we got everyone on board and we went everywhere, into every single town and onto every single street, and didn’t leave a single voter behind,” Lamb said, “that we stood a chance.”
An aggressive ground game helped Lamb eke out a win in the special election. His moderate positions on issues like guns and abortion were also helpful.
Now, thanks to court-ordered redistricting, he faces U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus (R - Sewickley) in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District. The district covers all of Beaver County and spans a swath of Allegheny County suburbs that includes the North and South Hills. Rothfus has represented many of its communities since 2013.
His race against Lamb is the nation’s only congressional election this year to feature two sitting congressmen.
Top issues: health care and Social Security
Both candidates have focused on issues like health care and Social Security.
“People have seen their premiums skyrocket. They’ve seen their co-pays skyrocket. We’ve seen people lose their insurance plans,” Rothfus said. “This is not the way it was sold to the American people.”
Lamb agrees costs have gotten too high for some patients. But he thinks there are ways the government could reduce the burden without scrapping Obamacare altogether.
He often cites “reinsurance” as a viable option that has seen success in some states. Under that model, the government creates a public fund to help insurance companies pay for unexpectedly expensive claims. The goal is to lower insurance premiums overall.
Lamb believes Social Security, which faces financial shortages in the long term, also needs a boost. The program’s fate is an important issue in a district that has a higher proportion of seniors compared to the rest of the state.
Rothfus has also called for Social Security to be reformed, but he offers fewer specific proposals. He believes a strong economy will bring more tax dollars to the program.
“The number-one solution for Social Security and Medicare is to continue to grow this economy, get more and more people back to work,” Rothfus said.
Rothfus added that, while he doesn’t support privatization of either program, he thinks lawmakers should introduce private sector competition to bring costs down.
He said Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drugs through private plans approved by the government, offers a good example.
Some common ground on taxes despite clashing economic philosophies
At a luncheon at the mostly vacant Pittsburgh Mills mall, Rothfus told a local chamber of commerce that the U.S. economy is the healthiest it’s been in 20 years. Unemployment today is the lowest it’s been since the 1960s.
Rothfus called that "a consequence of the pro-growth policies that we’ve been enacting."
Rothfus credits the Republican tax cuts that became law last year with stimulating the economy.
Lamb opposed the cuts, saying they’re largely a giveaway to the wealthy and big corporations and based on the false notion that trickle-down economics works. He also noted the tax law is projected to add more than a trillion dollars to the national deficit.
Lamb admitted that bill, which isn’t expected to get through the Senate, would add an estimated $3 trillion to the deficit over the next 20 years. But he said the individual cuts -- not corporate breaks -- are worth keeping.
“It was a tough call,” Lamb said of his vote, “and I guess my thinking was that people really need these tax cuts right now, and we can try to fix the tax code longer term, to deal with the debt because that is a longer term problem.”
District politics vs. Washington politics
Lamb and Rothfus are running in a district with a lot of moderates who favor initiatives from both parties.
Democrat Jason Altmire, a former representative for the district, said it will be a challenge to represent the area in Washington, no matter who wins the seat in November.
Altmire expects his party to retake the House and sideline Republicans like Rothfus, who rarely break ranks with the GOP. But the former congressman says, nationally, Democrats are far more liberal than Lamb.
“And that’s going to make it very difficult for moderate Democrats to work within the Democratic caucus,” Altmire said, “because they’re not going to viewed in such a good light once the Democrats get over the euphoria of having retaken the House.”
“The reality of our system is that we have two major parties -- two major parties with two different agendas,” added Republican Melissa Hart, who also used to represent the district.
Hart said, while voters should get to know their candidates, they should also keep in mind that party priorities will determine what either candidate will accomplish in Washington.