Conor Lamb’s winning formula for a big Democratic comeback

Supporters of Conor Lamb hold signs during his election night party

Supporters of Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District hold signs during his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa., Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Put your hands together for Conor Lamb and his two key accomplishments:

  • He muzzled Donald Trump, who has been blessedly mute on Twitter about his Pennsylvania election humiliation.
  • He crafted the winning formula for a Democratic takeover of the U.S. House in 2018.

If Democrats are smart (hold your jokes), if they can resist their inimitable impulse to screw things up, they have a golden opportunity to wrest the House from Trump’s supine cultists and halt the slide to autocracy. The formula ain’t brain surgery. It has five overlapping components:

1. Run candidates who fit their districts

Thanks to GOP gerrymandering on a virtually national scale, most of the congressional districts in play this year are dominated by moderate and Republican voters. They can’t win many of those districts by running as gun-hating, abortion-embracing cultural liberals. Without abandoning key Democratic tenets, they have to mirror the people they seek to represent; in the words of Guy Cecil, who runs a big Democratic PAC, they have to “meet voters where they live. We can’t run cookie-cutter campaigns.”

Lamb fit his culturally conservative district. He’s a Catholic ex-Marine whose TV ads said that he “loves to shoot”; he said that he personally opposes abortions, but wants to follow the laws that permit it; he said that he wants to keep Obamacare, but he opposes single-payer universal health care. Those stances are anathema to liberal purists — his health care position surely ticks off the Bernie Sanders crowd — but he’d never have scored his upset if persuadable voters had viewed him as a liberal stereotype.

Granted, Democrats can take the House with a net gain of 23 seats, and it just so happens that 23 GOP incumbents hold seats in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton. Unabashed liberal messaging might be enough to turn those seats blue, but it’s nuts to assume Democrats can go 23 for 23. For Democrats to be competitive beyond those districts, they need variations of the Lamb formula.

2. Disavow Nancy Pelosi

Fairly or not, voters in Republican-held districts have a Pavlovian reaction to the House Democratic leader, who, in their view, symbolizes Washington establishment liberalism. (I’ve written about this.) GOP strategists try to link every Democrat to Pelosi; they do it because it works — as evidenced in the ’10 and ’14 midterms. But it didn’t work with Lamb. They linked him to Pelosi in TV ads, warning that he would join her “flock,” but he replied by saying into the camera, in one of his own ads, “I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.” Bye-bye issue.

It’s imperative that Democratic candidates demonstrate their independence. As Texas Democratic congressman Filemon Vela said yesterday, “If we’re going to take the majority, it’s going to be because we win districts like [Lamb’s]. Running against Nancy Pelosi is going to help you a lot more than running with her.”

3. Don’t campaign against Trump

There’s virtually no need to even mention him, because voters who are tempted to stoke a blue wave already detest him. In fact, every time Trump opens his mouth, he builds the case against himself. (Wednesday, he boasted that in a recent meeting with Canada’s prime minister, he deliberately lied that America has a trade deficit with Canada: “I didn’t even know … I had no idea.”)

Lamb didn’t waste time talking about Trump. That was smart. Voters already know who the Democrats are against. They want to know what the Democrats are for.

4. Keep it local

Democratic candidates need to talk affirmatively about the everyday issues that matter in their prospective districts. Stay local, and let the Republicans nationalize their campaigns — under the tattered Trump banner. (Even if Republicans flee Trump, he’ll likely try to nationalize their races anyway, to keep himself front and center.)

Lamb, for instance, stressed the fatal havoc being wrought in Southwestern Pennsylvania by the opioid epidemic.  He prioritized the issue on his campaign website, and he said during a debate, “There is a huge role for the government to play here. Only the government can build those [treatment] facilities and fill them with beds and fill them with qualified staff.” That played better than opponent Rick Saccone’s knee-jerk, cookie-cutter conservatism; last year, the state lawmaker was caught on camera telling the mother of an opioid addict, “We don’t have any more funding, OK? We’re going to try to cut the budget.”

5. Tout the kitchen-table Democratic values

As Lamb demonstrated, the economic fundamentals can still work: Protect Medicare and Social Security from Paul Ryan’s safety net shredders; protect labor unions’ rights to organize and serve their members; use federal money to create infrastructure jobs; thwart all GOP efforts to repeal or cripple Obamacare (Lamb on opioid addicts: “Only the government can have the health insurance programs to help these people”). And expose the GOP tax cut law for what it is: A gift to the rich, at the expense of the average working stiff.

The ideal ’16 Democratic House candidate, armed with variations of the Lamb formula, is probably a military veteran (preferably female) with experience in the private sector, an outsider with no track record in electoral politics. That’s a high bar, of course, and we’ll soon find out whether the party is smart enough to be pragmatic — or stupid enough to wage yet another self-destructive intramural purity war.

Commentator Paul Begala, the ex-Bill Clinton strategist, said Wednesday, “There are two kinds of parties, just like there are two kinds of churches: Those who hunt down heretics and those who seek out converts.”

Conor Lamb sought converts and won them over. That’s how you build a big-tent party. In 2018, that’s the war that needs to be waged.

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