Wednesday, March 14, 2018

In Like A Lamb

Barring an incredibly high Republican return on absentee ballots that are still outstanding in two predominantly Republican counties - and by high we're talking more than 70 percent - Democrat Conor Lamb will be the next representative of the Pennsylvania 18th district; a district Donald Trump carried by 20 points in 2016. Lamb's lead at present is around 600 votes with only about 1400 absentee ballots left to count, hence the unlikelihood of his Republican opponent Rick Saccone catching him.

The ramifications of this win cannot be overstated enough. This was no swing district; it had been reliably red since 2003. In fact, in the last two elections the Republican ran unopposed, that's how secure it was. And while the GOP can claim all they want that registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by almost twenty thousand, the fact remains that this race should never have been this close, let alone a win for the Democrat.

But then Conor Lamb is not your typical Democrat, anymore than Doug Jones or Ralph Northam are. Lamb is a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who supports Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. He has publicly distanced himself from his party's leadership, going so far as to pledge he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker should Democrats take back the House in 2018. He's what the base would call a DINO (Democrat in name only) and what the rest of us would call a throw back to the days when the Party was a force to be reckoned with in places like the South and Midwest. Like Tim Ryan of Ohio, he isn't afraid to admit what every pundit already knows: that Democrats blew it big tine with blue-collar workers.

So why all the hoopla for a district that is going to be redrawn this November? Because if Democrats can win in a Red district - albeit by a very small margin - than their prospects in the 23 districts that Hillary Clinton carried but which are currently controlled by Republicans look quite promising. At least that's the prevailing logic within the party. Going into last night Democrats needed to flip 24 seats to regain the majority. This win reduces that number by one. Assuming they run the table on all 23 of the Clinton districts - a tall order but not totally out of the realm of possibility - that would put them over the top.

But here's the rub. In order to accomplish this, Democrats are going to have to come to grips with a staggering reality: that their brand is badly tarnished. The elections of Ralph Northam, Doug Jones and now Conor Lamb prove two things: first, that Democrats can compete and win in non-blue districts or states; second, those Democrats who do compete and win must match the district or state they're running in. Like it or not, the Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren wing of the Party cannot win in these areas. Had Lamb embraced the orthodoxy of his party's base or if another, more progressive Democrat had been the nominee, Rick Saccone would be on his way to Washington as we speak.

It's time to face facts. Western Pennsylvania isn't California; nor is most of Michigan, Wisconsin or Ohio for that matter. There's an old saying that goes like this: "When in Rome do as the Romans do." Democrats would do well to remember that saying in the months ahead. Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp are not progressives; far from it. But they are among the ten Democrats who are running for reelection in states that Trump carried and their survival depends on their ability to separate themselves from the progressive wing of their party. But just as importantly, their survival also depends on that progressive wing not attacking them.

That's why Elizabeth Warren's decision to publicly call out by name members of her own party for supporting a GOP bill that admittedly would severely weaken Dodd - Frank was so inexplicable. Yes, the bill was bullshit and, yes, on the merits Warren is correct for condemning it, but she crossed the line by naming her colleagues. Even Barney Frank, who co-authored Dodd - Frank, criticized Warren and said that her comments could hurt the party in the midterms.

This "one size fits all" approach that many progressives have adopted is the biggest impediment to the success of the Democratic Party. The simple truth is that what works in Boston, or Burlington for that matter, doesn't necessarily work in western Pennsylvania. Conor Lamb understood that going into this election. That's one of the reasons he prevailed. The other was Trump's approval rating, which even in areas of the country that voted for him has taken a hit.

But Democrats cannot simply rely on Trump's negatives to win back the House. They need to come up with a winning message that can resonate as well in Oshkosh as it does in Brooklyn. There's a reason why Republicans hardly ever win in the Northeast or west coast; and it's the same reason Democrats hardly ever win in the Rust-belt states. The far-right and far-left have so thoroughly taken over their respective parties that the center has ostensibly been squeezed out.

Well Conor Lamb, Doug Jones and Ralph Northam just squeezed their way back in. It would behoove Democrats to find a home for them, and fast.

P.S. an earlier version of this piece said that 12 Democrats are running for reelection in states Trump carried. The real number is 10. I have made the correction.

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