A month after winning the special election in the 18th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D - Mt. Lebanon), now faces a new drama on a new stage.
With a new congressional map ordered by the state Supreme Court in February, the Democrat now lives in the 17th District to the north and west of Pittsburgh, where he hopes to run against sitting Congressman Keith Rothfus (R - Sewickley) in November.
Falling almost entirely within Rothfus’ current district, the 17th is largely new territory for Lamb. But, the former federal prosecutor said he said he’ll stick to the approach he took to the special election in March, with its emphasis on congressional dysfunction and economic issues.
“Most western Pennsylvanians are facing the same basic issues,” Lamb said.
Lamb hopes to win over voters like Pat Kleigleng, a resident of Economy Borough in Beaver County. Bundled up at a track meet at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, Kleigleng said she’s already quite familiar with Lamb.
“I couldn’t wait until this special election was over because I was tired of hearing the same ads over and over,” Kleigleng said. “And, we’re not even involved in it because we’re a different district.”
Under the new lines, Kleigleng now lives in the 17th District.
A Democrat, Kleigleng voted for President Trump in 2016. She worries Lamb will align with Democratic lawmakers, who she thinks have been too quick to write off the president.
“I’m not sure this Lamb - I don’t know. I like to see young people, but he just - I’m not totally convinced yet,” Kleigleng said.
The retired registered nurse said she might just wait to vote in the general election, when she could go for Rothfus. She said she's voted for him in past elections.
Potential Incumbent Showdown
When the state’s high court reconfigured the congressional map, the 17th lost the rural stretches that Rothfus had come to count on as a Tea Party Republican. Previously numbered the 12th, the district extended from Beaver County more than 100 miles east to Cambria and Somerset counties. It was considered safe for Rothfus.
Despite the new lines, Rothfus said he can prevail in the midterm by focusing on a pro-growth agenda. Unlike Lamb, the three-term congressman is a big proponent of the GOP tax bill. He said it will create jobs.
“I think you do have that binary choice: do we want to go down the path of more government and higher taxes, or more jobs and higher wages?” Rothfus said.
For Aliquippa resident Jim DeWeese, Rothfus’ strong stance on the Second Amendment is also a selling point. A Republican, DeWeese said he doesn’t want to take a chance on a Democrat who might support more gun control.
“As far as this one goes, I’ll stick with the status quo,” DeWeese said.
While incumbency usually is an asset, it’s likely to be a challenge for Rothfus, according to David Wasserman, who handicaps congressional races for Cook Political Report.
“He’s going to have to point to a record of accomplishment in Congress at a time when Congress is very unpopular,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman also noted the obstacle the new district creates for Rothfus in a potential showdown with Lamb, who Wasserman expects to win the Democratic primary.
“The map couldn’t have been drawn any better for Conor Lamb,” Wasserman said.
The 17th District now includes all of Beaver County, many suburban areas in Allegheny County, and Cranberry Township in Butler County. It’s a study in contrasts, mixing prosperous suburbs with beleaguered post-industrial towns.
Wasserman considers it a toss-up between Democrats and Republicans, with Lamb the “narrow favorite.”
Given the current political climate, Wasserman notes, a lot of suburban Republicans are questioning their party identity.
“Then you have Beaver County, which historically has been very Democratic, but was heavily pro-Trump in the 2016 election,” Wasserman added.
While suburban Republicans and conservative Democrats in Beaver County might not appear to have much in common, former Democratic Congressman Jason Altmire said “both of those groups trend towards the center.”
Altmire represented many of the areas that fall within the new 17th between 2007 and 2012. While he predicted a tough battle between Rothfus and Lamb, he thinks Lamb is the kind of Democrat who can rally support from social conservatives in his party.
“If you can give them a Democrat that’s a good fit for the district − that matches on those cultural issues − they’re more than willing to vote Democrat,” Altmire said.
In last month’s special election, for example, Lamb walked a tightrope on issues like abortion, saying that while he’s personally opposed to the practice, he believes in a woman’s right to choose.
But First, the Primary
Sitting for a haircut at a barber shop in Aspinwall, just outside the Pittsburgh city limits, Bob Grandizio of O’Hara Township describes himself as a moderate Democrat who’s voted for many Republicans in the past.
This year, however, he’s supporting Lamb because he thinks the representative has the best shot of beating Rothfus. He says Rothfus is too wedded to the Republican Party line.
“He’s a stone conservative. He’s not willing to bend,” Grandizio said.
Barbershop owner Matthew Wolf of Blawnox said he’s more of a liberal than his client but that he, too, plans to vote for Lamb in the primary.
“I don’t necessarily agree with everything [Lamb] says,” Wolf explained. “But he’s got an overall stance that’s broad enough that I can kind of support him because they’re supposed to be leading for a community, not for personal beliefs.”
Although he’s going with Lamb, he does have another option in the May 15 primary: Ray Linsenmayer (D - McCandless), who calls himself the best choice for liberal Democrats.
Last year, the small business owner formed the North Pittsburgh Democratic Volunteer Corps, helping dozens in his party get elected to local office in the North Hills.
He considers the new map to be a boost to his candidacy.
“The new district from my point of view, brought in places like Penn Hills and Mount Lebanon, which are historic Democratic strongholds where my message on gun safety and choice resonates very very very strongly,” Linsenmayer said.
Guns have emerged as a central issue in the aftermath of February’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and both Democratic candidates discussed the topic at a town hall in Millvale last week.
Lamb continued to call for enhanced background checks while holding firm on his opposition to banning AR-15 rifles.
Linsenmayer supports a ban, and that’s a major reason why, at the town hall, Otilia Golis of Ross said she’s backing him in the primary.
“[I’m] definitely kind of torn between Conor Lamb’s name recognition,” she admitted, “but I do like Ray’s answers much better.”
For his part, Lamb’s focusing on economic issues.
“I want to bring more jobs to this region,” he said. “And I want to make sure that our people who are paid into Social Security and Medicare, our veterans who have served this country actually get to realize the benefits that they’ve earned over time.”
Altmire, the ex-congressman who represented the district, said voters will be watching whether Lamb delivers on those promises.