Yes, says Democratic campaign consultant Paul Begala, “Democrats can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
By which he means, yes, the party can respond to its famously diverse constituencies while also reaching out to the working-class, middle-class and mostly white voters who have swung mostly to Republicans and, most recently, to President Donald Trump since at least the mid-1960s.
That new surge of outreach optimism among Democrats like Begala follows a surprisingly strong performance by Democrat Conor Lamb in Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania 18th District, a district that Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Although his victory margin was as thin as a coat of paint and he still could face a recount, his win added another dramatic victory to the three high profile statewide gains that Democrats scored in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama last year.
Suddenly the Pennsylvania race that normally would be a nothingburger was transformed into a contest gained national importance. The race jumped from a national nothing-burger to a promising indication that the Democrats might have a pulse.
Republicans spent more than $8 million on television advertising for their nominee, state House member Rick Saccone — twice as much as the Democrats did on their nominee. President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other Grand Old Party stars flew in to endorse Saccone — and he still failed to score a victory.
Democrats appear to be doing things right again. Hopes look even brighter for the “blue wave” that Democrats hope will win back at least one house of Congress and in 2020 the White House.
But can the famously fractious liberal party pull it off without fighting too much among themselves?
The Lamb campaign reveals some new rules shaping up into a new campaign playbook for Dems who want to win:
▪ Nominate a uniter, not a divider. Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine Corps veteran and former federal prosecutor, combined a strong biography with a clear economic message of the sort that Democrats failed to deliver in 2016.
▪ Dance with those who brought you. Democratic and labor leaders approached Lamb about running in October, after longtime congressman Tim Murphy resigned in a scandal. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quietly slipped his campaign an early $1 million, but the campaign deliberately avoided attracting national attention and a possible backlash from the right.
Democrats can hold the blue-collar center — again. On the issues, GOP super PAC mailers said Lamb opposed new gun laws in the wake of school shootings and that he had broken with his labor supporters by opposing a $15 minimum wage – because small businesses were against it, Lamb said. He also opposed the brief government shutdown that Democrats hoped would lead to a vote on protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
On the always incendiary issue of abortion in the pro-choice party, Lamb, a Catholic, calls himself “personally opposed to abortion” but also promises to uphold the Supreme Court and Constitution. On the party’s leadership, Lamb also has said he does not support returning Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to her post, which further enhanced his appeal as an outsider.
Yet despite these deviations from the usual party line, there was no apparent liberal backlash. Instead, various analysts noted, his turnout in Democratic Allegheny County was higher than in the more conservative parts of the district.
One caution: We’re still talking about special elections, which are very hard to predict or analyze. But the apparent swing of energy and enthusiasm from the Republicans to the Democrats, quite the opposite of 2016, offers little to give Republicans comfort.
Trump’s base-oriented presidency has left a lot of room in the political middle. Trump promised everything, including such contradictions as expanded health care at lower cost and tax cuts with deficit reduction. But the self-described “stable genius” is looking more like the “chaos candidates” described by his 2016 Republican rivals.
But campaigning against Trump is not enough. Democrats have to offer voters something – and someone – to vote for. Conor Lamb wouldn’t be the right candidate for every district. He points the way, though, to the sort of swing voter appeal the party too often seems to forget about – until its’ too late.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.