Michael Swartz / Mar. 16, 2018

Will Lamb’s Win Shepherd Democrats to New Leadership?

Running against Nancy Pelosi has worked for Republicans. Now it might work for Democrats.

After several failed attempts to win congressional seats vacated by Republicans, Democrats finally succeeded in an unlikely place: Pennsylvania’s 18th District, handily won in 2016 by Donald Trump. It was there that 33-year-old former Marine Conor Lamb turned the trick by running as a moderate and, more important to the subject of this story, advising voters in that district, “I’ve already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.”

Now, unless House Democrats are planning a coup, Lamb’s pronouncement isn’t going to be relevant until he faces Day 1 in the House — let alone another election in November in what may be a completely reconfigured district. But this centrist, anti-Pelosi strategy has now worked for a party other than the Republican one, and there are many Democrats who wonder if that’s a winner in their district, too. “Running against Nancy Pelosi is going to help you a lot more than running with her,” contends Texas Democrat Rep. Filemon Vela.

And political prognosticator Michael Barone argues that Democrats can win if they go with Conor Lamb over Hillary Clinton’s contempt for Americans.

Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, a member of the party’s near-extinct Blue Dog Coalition and the chair of their PAC, agrees. “If you’re in a district like Conor Lamb’s that is representing huge swaths of rural and suburban areas, I think you have to make a clear statement about your support — or lack thereof — of the current leader of the Democratic Party,” said Schrader. With Lamb’s win, speculation is rampant that Pelosi’s chances of regaining the speaker’s gavel are slim to none even if Democrats do regain control of the chamber.

Pelosi, of course, feels otherwise. “I don’t think that [my leadership] really had that much impact on the race,” she insisted, instead calling the victory a result of “the bankruptcy of the Republican Party.”

Yet there are other factors at work here as well. Lamb, who didn’t have to survive a primary challenge from his left in the special election, also had the advantage of name recognition in the Pittsburgh-area district — his uncle and grandfather have also served in local and state political offices. And he succeeded in localizing the race to the extent that he spoke to the district’s specific concerns and didn’t make President Donald Trump an issue. Instead, it was the GOP that brought national politics in by mentioning Pelosi’s name — a strategy that has worked against Democrats in previous congressional races there. But not this time.

Lamb may be a new kind of Democrat entering on the lowest rung of the federal electoral ladder, but those on the top rungs are bracing for a dirty campaign in 2020. Their problem? “It’s possible dozens of Democrats will seek to become their party’s nominee in 2020, and Democratic strategists say none of them particularly stand out in terms of likability,” writes The Hill’s Amie Parnes.

If the people were aghast at the prospect of the reviled Nancy Pelosi being speaker of the House, they may get really angry about whoever wins the Democrat presidential nomination. They don’t know prospective candidates like Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand yet, but once they do, it’s likely that many of them will look elsewhere.

While Conor Lamb ran as a Democrat, his résumé and his rhetoric convinced voters from his own party (who backed Trump in 2016) to come home and lure independents with his promise of working across the aisle on issues like trade and health care. But before he can make his non-Pelosi choice for speaker of the House, he has to get back there — and voters of his region will be watching to see if he really means what he said during the campaign. That critical tune may change rather abruptly once he takes the oath of office.

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