Even though nobody is quite sure what the boundaries of the 18th District will look like, the Special Election to replace former Congressman Tim Murphy is in full swing in southwestern Pennsylvania. The combination of the seat being open for the first time in since 2003, plus being the only election in the nation on March 13, not to mention the general batshit crazy nature of today’s politics have set up a very interesting contest.
The candidates, Democrat Connor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone, are out in full force doing the usual campaigny things like opening local field offices and bringing the President of the United States to Make the 18th Great Again, but does any of it really matter? Congressional districts in Pennsylvania consist of about 750,000 people, which makes knocking doors and kissing babies just slightly more effective than tilting at actual windmills. Like it or not, this is a race that will likely be won or lost via television commercials.
And based on the way things are looking with about six weeks left to go, Democratic voters should be absolutely furious with the Democratic Party. Like spitting fire furious. Why?
Because despite holding an impressive voter registration advantage of 80,000, the Democratic Party at the national level is letting this race slip away for seemingly no good reason. As widely reported in local media this week, Republican money is pouring into the race while Democrats seem content to fiddle while the 18th burns.
How much money are we talking? Lots of money.
The disparity in money has become a rallying cry for the Lamb campaign, as evidenced by Tweets like this:
8 years after #CitizensUnited, super PACs are spending millions to try & buy this race in #PA18. I couldn’t be more grateful for all the people volunteering their time, energy & hard-earned money to help us win the old-fashioned way. https://t.co/M50WIWnEx5
— Conor Lamb (@ConorLambPA) January 21, 2018
But what’s baffling is why the Democrats are letting this race, which allegedly has Saccone with a razor-thin 41–38 lead with plenty of time left until Election Day, get bought out from underneath them. The sheer symbolism alone should be enough to make a real investment. The district is a national bellwether that went to Trump by nearly 20 points in 2016; the fact that the Democrat is polling within the margin of victory should be a giant magnet for national Democratic support. This is EXACTLY the kind of district the Democrats need to win if they have any prayer of retaking the majority in Congress.
Adding to the confusion are the candidates themselves. Lamb has positioned himself in the classic “Southwest PA Democrat” moderate mold, vowing early on not to support Nancy Pelosi for Leader if elected. Not that it mattered- the narrative being pumped into the district practically portrays Pelosi and Lamb as conjoined twins. Lamb has been working as hard as a candidate can, working the sprawling district from all possible angles.
By comparison, Saccone’s politics, firmly established by a lengthy tenure in the State Legislature, are far more conservative than the district should be comfortable with. The real reason no Democrat has been unable to mount a viable challenge to Tim Murphy was that Murphy was slick enough to show support for organized labor, which is still kind of a big deal in Southwestern Pennsylvania. As long as labor was content, Murphy knew it would be nearly impossible for a challenger to get the money and momentum they would need to take him out.
By comparison, Rick Saccone is clearly anti-labor, and not just a little bit. There is no way labor supports Saccone like they did Murphy; that shift alone means there are plenty of new avenues to swing Murphy voters away from Saccone in 2018.
But who cares about policy when the airwaves are filled with soaring rhetoric like this?
Then again, in order to make an informed decision, the voters have to be informed. Saccone has wrapped himself in the flag and proclaimed himself a protector of taxpayer dollars with very few specifics. He’s cast a bunch of really ugly votes in the State House, but those crucial details aren’t part of the narrative because the money isn’t there.
To give you an idea of just how ridiculous the disparity is, look at the numbers again based solely on the beneficiary:
Seriously. What the hell, Democrats? Some veteran political observers see a disturbing trend playing out. While the Republicans go all-in regardless of the circumstances (does the name Roy Moore ring a bell?), Democrats are unwilling to invest in a race until like ten minutes before the polls open. This is the time when a narrative is being established with voters, and the Republicans are doing what it takes to make sure that narrative pays dividends for their candidate.
The enthusiasm gap seems to favor Lamb, but that enthusiasm can quickly turn to bitterness when supporters watch their phone-banking and door-knocking negated by a one-sided advertising battle. Remember how all of those voters turned on the Democrats in 2016? It has a whole lot to do with feeling ignored by their party, and we’re about to see history repeat itself if something doesn’t change real soon.
Instead of feeding Congressional candidates like Conor Lamb to the wolves, how about making a real grown-up investment in these campaigns? Yeah, a couple of million dollars is real money, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re talking about pocket change at the national level. Yes, it sucks that we live in a world where big ugly money can effectively buy elections, but it’s time to stop complaining and beat the other side at their own game. It’s the only way to retake a majority and try to fix the underlying problem.
It’s been a rough few years for Southwestern PA Democrats. They’ve been effectively written off as uneducated rednecks and put on the statewide “Pay No Mind” list in favor of the blue-trending counties surrounding Philadelphia, even though the Philly media market is far more expensive than Pittsburgh. This self-fulfilling prophecy is why the Republicans have a staggering 41 seat majority in the State House, the biggest margin since 1957–58.
There should be a significant national investment by Democratic interests in the Lamb-Saccone race. There is no justifiable reason to sit back and do the bare minimum to make it seem as though they made an effort. We already have an organization who had dibs on that tactic, and they run the Pittsburgh Pirates. We don’t need another.
The Democratic Party at the national level seems incapable of understanding that turning their back on candidates, and by extension voters, will almost certainly lead to the voters turning their back on the Democratic Party.
So instead of trying, how about actually winning for a change? Who knows? You just might Make America Great Again in the process.