With millions of dollars being spent and no shortage of national media attention in advance of the March 13 Special Election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, it appears the last thing the candidates want to do is actually let the contest be decided by issues. That would be crazy, right? I mean, who gets elected by telling voters what they believe and letting an informed electorate decide?
In the wake of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this week, the campaigns of both candidates, Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone, issued the following statements. See if you can tell which statement came from each candidate:
CANDIDATE A: “We have to look at people with mental health problems” but not “disarm law‐abiding citizens.” As for proposals like enhanced background checks, he said, “I welcome the debate. … I just want to make sure that all of the things and the underlying variables are on the table.”
CANDIDATE B: “No parent should ever drop their child off at school and be afraid they won’t be alive at the end of the day. My heart breaks for those families in Florida and, in Congress, I will work to make sure that people with serious mental illnesses do not have access to guns.”
Yeah, good luck deciphering much out of those bowls of word soup. For the record, Republican Rick Saccone issued Statement A, and Democrat Conor Lamb issued Statement B, not that there’s much difference.
Saccone’s position is nothing new; as a State Representative, he championed the passing of the Castle Doctrine and established himself as a darling of one‐issue Second Amendment voters. I know because I remember speaking alongside him at the massive Second Amendment rally held in the Capitol Rotunda every year. Saccone isn’t pandering on the issue of guns; this is where he’s been for his entire political career.
Which is why Conor Lamb’s statement made little to no sense whatsoever from a political standpoint. I get the strategy‐ there’s an unwritten rule that for any Democrat to win in Southwestern Pennsylvania, they need to be pro‐gun and pro‐life. But let me ask you something:
When is the last time a Democrat won a high‐profile election in Southwestern Pennsylvania using this strategy? Democrats at the state and federal level in Southwestern Pennsylvania got their clocks cleaned using this strategy in 2010, which was the rise of the Tea Party, and again in 2014, another strong Republican year.
Exactly. The political instinct of Democrats in this corner of the Commonwealth is to run as “Republican‐Lite” and hope that’s enough to carry the day. But how often do you choose the “lite” option when no one is looking when it comes to guilty pleasures? “Republican‐Lite” doesn’t work because it basically concedes that conservative views on issues are the correct ones, which means Democratic candidates come across as apologetic for their party affiliation. One candidate for the Democratic nomination in this very election even based her campaign on the promise to “be a Republican on everything but labor.” No, seriously. That happened.
You think the woes of local Democrats trying to organize anywhere outside of the City of Pittsburgh just might have something to do with candidates who think the path to victory is to worship at the altar of the opposition?
It’s hard to grow a grassroots organization if your own candidates are content to salt the earth, especially on a strategy that despite conventional wisdom, just doesn’t work. But because few high‐profile candidates are willing to try anything else, we may never know if there is a better alternative.
Lamb’s response to the Parkland shooting is really a head‐scratcher for several reasons. Because nobody knows exactly where the lines of the 18th Congressional District will ultimately lie, there is a good chance the district could incorporate more of the socially progressive parts of Allegheny County like the South Hills and Mon Valley instead of Dead‐Red Westmoreland County.
Also, the Lamb campaign, although being outspent by about a billion to one, is staying competitive thanks to an impressive showing from progressive grassroots activists. How do you think his non‐answer on school shootings is going to play with them, especially when coupled with Lamb’s refusal to acknowledge a woman’s right to choose whether or not she should be able to get an abortion. At what point are volunteers going to stop and wonder just what Conor Lamb stands for?
Is it so hard to come out and say that maybe it shouldn’t be easier to get an AR‐15 than it is to get a rental car in this country? Is that what qualifies as liberal extremism? Is supporting comprehensive background checks for gun purchases really a bridge too far?
What the Lamb campaign doesn’t realize is that the one‐issue Second Amendment voters are voting for the other guy. Sorry, but that’s just happening. Saccone enjoys solid support from Firearms Owners Against Crime, which is arguably more politically influential than the support of the NRA, which Saccone also has procured. Holding a rifle in a commercial isn’t enough to win those voters over. Trust me, I’ve tried. They ain’t buying it.
The worst part about all of this is that it could have been a great opportunity for the Lamb campaign to paint Saccone as a puppet of pro‐gun special interests and stake out a more reasonable position. If you can’t find a way to make yourself seem measured and reasonable when your opponent is openly at the farthest end of the political spectrum, why are you running for Congress?
This was what my friends like to call a “junk‐high 70 mile‐per‐hour fastball”; if you don’t blast it out of the park, shame on you. By taking the safe path and refusing to acknowledge the obvious political problems regarding the reduction of gun violence in our schools, Conor Lamb gained approximately zero votes. But if he had come out with a real statement demonstrating the political courage to ask some of the tough questions the entire nation is grappling with on this issue, the political upside could have been substantial.
What would that look like? Oh, I don’t know, maybe something like this? (And what I’m about to write will be 100% stream of consciousness with no preparation.)
“This is an area where my opponent and I have vastly different opinions on how we should be protecting our schools. Rick Saccone is on a crusade to put ‘In God We Trust’ on the wall of every school in Pennsylvania, while I’m more concerned with making sure some kid that slipped through the cracks isn’t trying to get into your kid’s school with an AR‐15.
Would those seventeen innocent children still be alive if the words ‘In God We Trust’ were on the wall? Of course not, and it’s offensive to their memories to suggest otherwise. Rick Saccone wants to use taxpayer resources to promote a radical religious agenda to keep moving up the political food chain, while I would much rather see that money being spent to keep our schools and children not just alive, but safe as well.”
Or something like that. Granted, I’m no politician per se. But you get the point.
Then you hit Saccone right in the face with it during your televised debate this week. Play a little offense‐ Democrats are allowed to do that in political campaigns, you know‐ instead of crawling into a fetal position and begging the mean Republican not to hurt you.
Sound a bit harsh? Yeah, probably. But this is an election for the fucking United States Congress we’re talking about, not some middle school student council race. The Republicans play to win, while all too often the Democrats, especially in Southwestern Pennsylvania, play not to get hurt so they can stop for ice cream on the way home.
This all fits into a larger story about how the 18th District in general and the Conor Lamb campaign, in particular, are viewed in prominent Democratic circles, both locally and in Washington, D.C., but that’s a tale best saved for another day.
Personally, I hope this is just a series of unforced political errors by the Lamb campaign and not reflective of the candidate’s actual views. As someone who will be sending two children off to school within the next couple of years, I need a better answer on the issue of gun violence in schools from someone who wants to be my representative in Congress. At this rate, don’t be shocked if many Democratic voters find themselves on Election Day in the same place Conor Lamb seems to be on the issues‐ nowhere to be found.