When the Democratic candidate Conor Lamb began his race in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, he faced headwinds of the type that caused horizontal snow in the nor’easter last week.
For starters, Donald Trump had won the district by 20 points in 2016. The district has been held by Republicans for most of the last 50 years. Conservative “super PACS” were willing to spend millions — it ended up being around $10 million — to buy TV time to savage Mr. Lamb.
The incumbent, Tim Murphy, a conservative anti-abortion Republican, had a lock on re-election until The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last year that he had urged his mistress to have an abortion. Republican House leaders decided that Mr. Murphy had to go. He resigned in October.
The man Republicans chose as their candidate was Rick Saccone, a Jurassic-era conservative who boasted that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.”
That apparently was a few Trumps too many for voters in the 18th, which begins in the Pittsburgh suburbs and slithers s its way, in classic gerrymandering fashion, through conservative small towns and rural areas toward the West Virginia border.
It’s no wonder that Mr. Saccone entered the race as the favorite. This race was Mr. Saccone’s to lose — and darned if he didn’t.
Absentee ballots still must be counted but Mr. Lamb held a lead of just under 600 votes, enough for him to declare victory early Wednesday. The news media was more cautious, but if the absentee ballots match the split of the vote at the polls, Mr. Lamb’s narrow lead will shrink, but hold.
The problem with political campaigns is that they don’t exist in theory but in fact. Factors like the candidate’s personality can carry weight, as does the effectiveness of his field effort and advertising. And, lest we forget, his position on the issues.
Mr. Saccone, 60, was a wet blanket of a candidate, without a scintilla of charisma. He also didn’t particularly care for campaigning, organized few public rallies and rarely took to the streets to speak with voters. He let the super PACS do the talking for him, with saturation TV ads.
While Mr. Saccone was a mediocre campaigner, Mr. Lamb was an excellent one.
He has a sterling all-American résumé: Marine, federal prosecutor, scion of a politically prominent Democratic family from Mount Lebanon. At 33, he had the stamina and the desire to knock on door after door. . He stopped wearing a suit and tie on block visits after one resident yelled “You’re a Jehovah’s Witness!” at him. Mr. Lamb yelled right back, “I’m a Catholic!”
The race in the 18th morphed into a side-door referendum on Mr. Trump, and on Tuesday turnout was high in both red and blue portions of the district.
Mr. Lamb’s strongest showing was in Allegheny County, where suburban voters — including Republicans — provided him with votes. Mr. Saccone ran up his votes in the three outlying counties.
Ted Kopas, a Democrat who is a Westmoreland County commissioner, warned about finding national or even cosmic trends in analyzing Mr. Lamb’s victory.
“Before you get try to put too much theory into voters’ minds, I think all the credit should go to Conor Lamb,” Mr. Kopas said. “There is no substitute for a candidate who is willing to go everywhere and do anything. He is the kind of person who, when people meet him, they like him. Smart and articulate. He is the picture of what people want to see in a congressman.”
Voters also liked his politics. Last weekend, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, reached deep into his bag of compound adjectives to declare at a Lamb rally: “He’s a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending Democrat.”
The 18th has long been the anger zone of state politics, populated by contrarians known mostly for their dislikes: of social progressives, of abortion, of politicians from the east (read: Philadelphia), of anti-gun do-gooders — the list could go on.
With the demise of coal and steel and ancillary industries, we are witnessing the “revenge of the working class,” according to someone who should know.
David Levdansky was a state legislator from Allegheny County, a pro-union Democrat who served for 26 years until he was unseated by Mr. Saccone in 2010 by 151 votes. Two years later, in a rematch, Mr. Saccone won again — by 112 votes. The defeat still stings.
What the collapse of core industries did was create a cadre of voters who, as Mr. Levdansky said, mimicking these angry voters’ message: “We want change! Give us change! We want to punish the elected officials in office!”
To Mr. Levdansky, Mr. Saccone is a “charlatan” who specializes in feeding voters red-meat issues while supporting cuts in education and human services. In the Pennsylvania House, Mr. Saccone introduced one bill to require schools to emblazon “In God We Trust” on every building and another to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Hillary Clinton did not stand a chance in the 18th. She was running against Mr. Anger himself.
President Trump stopped by the district for a rally on Saturday night at which he spent five minutes urging the crowd to support Mr. Saccone and 70 minutes talking about himself.
If Mr. Saccone prided himself on being a Trump clone, Mr. Lamb bears a striking resemblance to another successful Democratic Pennsylvania: Senator Bob Casey, who is also pro-union and anti-abortion, although Mr. Lamb takes the position that while he is personally opposed to abortion, the laws should not change. Mr. Casey’s brand of politics, and his nice-guy persona, work well in Pennsylvania.
When he first ran for the Senate in 2006, Mr. Casey won the 18th by 11 percentage points. It’s all the more impressive because the man he defeated was Rick Santorum (another angry man, come to think of it) who represented the district until he quit to run for the Senate.
In another era, Mr. Casey would be called a centrist. Now, he’s too conservative for progressives and too liberal for conservatives. The only people who like him are the voters.
Mr. Lamb does not meet the test of ideological purity sought by his party’s progressive wing, but the future of the party may rest upon Democrats like him, who have the insight to understand Mr. Trump’s appeal and act accordingly. Ivory Soap Democrats won’t cut it in territory like the 18th.
One additional note: whoever wins should take only a short-term lease on his district offices. After all this storm and fury — not to mention the millions spent — the 18th in its current form is likely to disappear. The state Supreme Court has redrawn all congressional district lines effective in the November election though Republicans have sued in federal court to overturn the redistricting.
In any case, if Mr. Lamb’s lead holds, to keep his seat he will have to run again in the fall for a full two-year term. And although the image is still a little blurry, the results of the latest political Rorschach test are in, and it doesn’t look good for Mr. Trump or his party.