Democrat Conor Lamb’s upset victory in a Pennsylvania congressional race this week was largely symbolic. Because of the state’s newly redrawn congressional maps, the district will be gone in less than 10 months. What matters for Tuesday’s election, then, is not the seat, but what the party can learn from the results.
Those results should enthuse Democrats and strike a bolt in the heart of the Republican Party. Lamb pulled off an unexpected win in a county that Donald Trump won by 20 points less than two years ago. Both Trump and the Republican Party pulled out all the stops to boost their candidate, Rick Saccone, with the party and its allied groups spending a whopping $10 million on the race.
But already, Democrats looks like they might learn the wrong lessons from Lamb’s win.
Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor, campaigned hard against cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. This was a smart move—an exit poll released by Public Policy Polling found that health care was a top issue for 52% of voters in the district. But beyond those policies, Lamb looked like a moderate-at-best candidate, touting his use of an AR-15 in ads and criticizing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi while steering clear of denigrating Trump. When it came to reproductive rights, Lamb said that while, as a Roman Catholic, he’s personally opposed to abortion, he supports pro-choice policies.
All of these factors made Lamb a politically good choice for the Democrats seizing an opportunity to win over Pennsylvania’s deep red 18th congressional district. But one of the factors perhaps most integral to his win was support from organized labor in a district where around 23% of voters are union members, compared to 10.7% nationally. Saccone advocated a right-to-work platform, which drove unions to swing their support from Tim Murphy—the Republican who held the seat until scandal forced his resignation—to Lamb.
So what did the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee take away from this race?
The day after the election, the DCCC sent out a press release declaring that “House Republicans are eight months away from a midterm election with nothing to run on, facing dozens and dozens of candidates who are veterans, prosecutors and have similar records of service to our country and communities.” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait made a similar argument, writing that Lamb’s victory was “proof of concept for a strategy that could replicate itself across the country” and showed that “recruiting veterans” is a “major advantage” for Democrats who want to flip Republican seats.
This is part of a pattern. Every move the DCCC has made since its chair Ben Ray Luján vowed there would be no “litmus tests” for candidates has showed the party’s willingness to embrace centrists and conservatives for the purpose of winning in the midterm elections. Almost all of the DCCC’s Red-to-Blue candidates, who are running in districts the party hopes to flip are white.
The calculus here is clear. The party establishment believes moderates and veterans are their ticket to winning back the House. It often seems like Democrats are just taking Rahm Emanuel’s strategy in 2006—when a blue wave washed over Republicans, who lost control in both chambers of Congress—and slapping it onto the 2018 political landscape. (It’s worth noting that as far back as last May, Politico reported that senior House Democrats were seeking advice from Obama’s former chief of staff.) Emanuel handpicked corporate-friendly moderates and military veterans whose views fit conveniently with his own.
The wave didn’t last. Just four years later, much of Emanuel’s class of 2006 had crumbled away. And with the benefit of hindsight, many progressives have pointed out that the Democrats, fed up with George W. Bush and his handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War, would very likely have won no matter who was on the ballot.
There’s evidence to back up those claims, especially in 2018. As Vox’s Matt Ygelsias pointed out recently, research shows that ideology doesn’t matter all that much when it comes to electability. In other words, especially in an era of increased political polarization, an ideologically moderate candidate is not necessarily more electable than a progressive.
When it comes to the notion that running Democrats who are veterans is the path to victory, the track record is actually quite slim. As Politico’s Bill Scher has pointed out, only five of the 49 military veterans who ran for Congress as Democrats in 2006—a class branded the “Fighting Dems”—won their races. Since then, Scher notes, the success rate for veterans “has only gotten worse.” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to get more veterans into Congress, the DCCC’s renewed obsession with running military candidates seems to be about putting candidates’ biography over their ideology. (After all, if the party is going to rely on recruiting candidates with backgrounds outside of politics, why not focus on, say, teachers instead?)
Lamb being a good fit for his district doesn’t mean his profile is the right model to replicate in races around the country—and winning at any cost cannot be Democrats’ end-all goal. Instead, they need to run candidates who can govern well and push for policies that benefit the people who’ve long supported the party at the ballot box.
Take, for example, Doug Jones, the Democrat who pulled off a historic win against Roy Moore in deep red Alabama. Since then, Jones has voted with Trump to reauthorize FISA, the warrantless spying program, twice voted against a government shutdown over DACA, and voted for rolling back banking regulations in the Dodd-Frank bill. That last vote, which would serve to only enrich large banks and make a financial crisis more likely, is especially telling, since there is no clear reason for Jones to back the legislation. It’s not like his supporters in Alabama—or Trump voters nationally—are clamoring to make big banks richer.
Electing someone with a D behind their name, even weak Democrats like Lamb or Jones, is, as a general rule, better than electing the Republican if you care about people of color, women, immigrants, and the working class. But faced with what could be a historic blue wave in 2018, this is also an unprecedented opportunity to build a Democratic majority that champions working people and rejects corporate interests. Lamb’s win shouldn’t be taken as a blanket sign that the party should shy away from candidates who advocate more progressive political issues like Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, gun control, and reproductive rights, even in Trump country. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be pushing for Democrats with more radical visions in safer blue seats.
To do anything less would be to waste this momentum. We need a party that can last, and that will push for the right policies and demonstrate an inspiring vision of what government can do. Otherwise, we’ll be right back here in a decade, with nothing to show for ourselves.