Conor Lamb’s stunning win in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th House District showed the blue wave building as the November midterms approach.
It also triggered an immediate debate about what the victory says about Democratic strategy this fall, amid warnings from the Democratic political pros that efforts to drive a bold progressive agenda will undermine Democratic prospects in conservative districts like Lamb’s.
Lamb’s remarkable surge in a district that favored Donald Trump by twenty points proves the “Resistance” is real. Republicans outspent Lamb and his allies by a five-to-one margin, and threw their entire playbook at him: Trump, tax cuts, tariffs, attack ads, and more. None of it worked.
With over 100 Republican-held districts more competitive than the one Lamb now represents, the panic in Republican circles is surely justified.
Lost in a Masquerade
Publicly, House Speaker Paul Ryan sought to discount the result by arguing Lamb masqueraded as a conservative. In a somewhat similar vein, some pundits and Democratic party officials suggested Lamb’s victory validates the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy of finding candidates that “fit their districts,” which is often code for recruiting more conservative or corporate Democrats.
While Lamb said he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi to lead the party and was personally pro-gun and opposed to abortion, the notion that he ran as a conservative is fanciful. Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speech writer, demolished it in one tweet, noting that Lamb campaigned for universal health care, against Trump’s tax cut, for expanded background checks on gun sales, for stronger unions, against cuts to Social Security, for a woman’s right to choose and for medical marijuana.
Lamb put voters’ kitchen-table concerns at the center of his campaign, and made himself the champion of working people in his district. He railed against House Speaker Paul Ryan for passing tax cuts for the rich and corporations while pushing deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare. He supported Trump’s tariffs while campaigning against our failed corporate trade policies. He embraced unions against an opponent who favored right-to-work legislation.
Lamb’s campaign was fueled by small donations and a field operation bolstered by unions. The DCCC largely stayed out of the race until late, and it’s likely it raised more money off the race than it actually put into it.
There are two major conclusions to be drawn from Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania. First, even in a growing low-unemployment economy, working people are looking for someone who will stand with them. A bold progressive economic agenda beats the Republican attempt to use top-end tax cuts, deregulation and attacks on government to cover their remorseless assault on workers. Even Trump’s tariffs and posturing about trade didn’t make the difference in this very red district.
Second, the turnout in the race showed once more that Democratic voters are mobilized and energized. Democrats came out in larger numbers than Republicans which usually does not happen in off-year or special elections. Even a massive effort by outside conservative groups could not counter that passion.
As the annual Strategy Summit hosted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center in Baltimore last weekend showcased, progressive movements and leaders are gaining capacity and confidence in driving the demand for Democrats to embrace a bold agenda for change. (Full disclosure: I chair the board of the CPCC).
A New Strategy
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the largest and most diverse group in the House. Its members tend to come from strong Democratic districts. They are increasingly united behind a bold populist agenda – fair trade, $15.00 minimum wage, Medicare for All, expand Social Security, tuition free college, support for worker rights and unions, public investment to rebuild America and drive a Green New Deal.
The summit featured prominent House members who are in the CPC, such as Keith Ellison and Pramila Jayapal, as well as progressive champions like Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio. Bernie Sanders spoke by video. All called for both mobilizing against Trump and Republicans and for demanding fundamental reform. Warren was saluted for her courage in calling out Democratic Senators who have lined up with the big banks to weaken bank regulation.
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Chris Shelton, President of the Communications Workers of America, summarized the progressive commitment most forcefully in his keynote address. “The fight for our country’s future,” he declared, “starts with The Resistance, standing up every day against the petulant, racist, fascist-coddling, phony populist, pro corporate, lying lunacy that cascades out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on an hour-by-hour basis.”
At the same time, he argued, progressive movements must continue “the fight to construct a set of visionary, value-based progressive populist politics that can win back a governing majority in this country.” That’s an agenda that “puts Main Street before Wall Street, that is serious about fighting for racial, gender and environmental justice, that is deeply committed to restoring [our] democracy… If we don’t deliver a positive message that resonates with working people in this country, then we will continue to lose.”
Shelton contrasted Wall Street Democrats with “poor people, working people, people of color, young people, women, LGBT people, immigrants” who must be the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. He called on Democrats to lead on raising the wages of American workers, on stopping the offshoring of jobs, and on protecting unions and worker rights at the workplace.
Shelton admits that too many of his members voted for Trump, in order to “shake things up.” Trump is trying to lock in that working class support with his trade, tariff and tax postures, as well as the vicious race-bait appeals. Shelton argues that the only answer is a bold agenda for economic justice that appeals to working people of all races, genders and sexual preferences. That agenda expands the appeal of Democratic candidates rather than limiting it.
A Progressive Agenda
The Progressive Caucus is driving that agenda inside the Congress, as its PAC is raising new resources to support progressive candidates in the field. The CPC’s infrastructure bill will largely define the Democratic response to Trump’s sham proposals. Its trade principles offer Democrats an alternative to the failed strategy of the past. Its annual People’s Budget has been gaining traction among mainstream Democrats. At the summit, Keith Ellison announced he would spearhead the push for Medicare for All.
Speakers at the CPCC Summit also highlighted the movements that are mobilizing across the country: The victorious West Virginia teachers strike will inspire teachers and other workers across the country. The Women’s March will mobilize in 10 states and Planned Parenthood announced a $20 million electoral program. Progressive groups like Our Revolution, Move on, Democrats for America, Working Families Party, the Progressive Congress Change Committee, People’s Action, Indivisible, Justice Democrats and others are building capacity to recruit and support insurgent candidates.
Democratic leaders got the message of the 2016 election: voters are looking for big change. Senate leader Chuck Schumer brought Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders into his leadership group. House leader Nancy Pelosi came to the CPC Summit to champion the need for a bold economic agenda.
From Old to New
Yet, the DCCC and the party pros who run it remain wedded to the old ways of doing business. They recruit candidates with deep pockets or the ability to raise big money and tend to seek out military veterans and social conservatives for contested districts. Establishment Democrats also try to limit the financial drain of contested primaries by undermining candidates like Laura Moser in Texas who might win a primary, but by DCCC calculation, are less likely to prevail in the general election. They decry “litmus tests” like Medicare for All which Republicans could attack.
Even in short-term electoral terms, there’s little reason to accede to the party establishment’s advice. The DCCC’s track record for picking “winners” over the last election cycles hasn’t earned respect. As the attack on Moser showed, efforts to undermine insurgents are likely to backfire. Primary challenges both reflect and can help build a more energized base. Resources aren’t finite – they can expand geometrically with excitement and passion, as the Sanders campaign surely demonstrated.
Fears about divisive party primaries crippling candidates are overblown. The threat of Trump and Republicans unites Democrats. The litmus tests define the candidates that progressive groups will use limited resources to support. That doesn’t mean progressives won’t rally in the general. The threat of Trump and Republicans unites Democrats.
If anything, the problem is that the progressive efforts are too weak, not too strong. Our Revolution is focused more on state and local races than on the congressional battle. The other groups have a limited slate of insurgents that they are supporting. Unions and the CPC PAC are more comfortable operating in the general election rather than in primary fights. The DCCC and the Democratic Party pros still play the largest role by far in determining who gets a leg up in primary races and who gets pushed down.
Midterm elections are about passion and energy. Democrats need a sea change, and the resistance to Trump is lifting the tide. Lamb’s victory shows is that Democrats don’t need purity to come out in large numbers to take back the Congress and confront Trump. It also shows that Democratic candidates who champion a bold kitchen table agenda can win even in the reddest of districts.
A version of this article was first published in TheNation.com, where Borosage writes weekly.