Forget the Democratic Socialist in New York. If Democrats retake the House of Representatives on Election Day, it will be because of people like Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb.
From North Carolina and Illinois to Ohio and Kentucky, Lamb’s shock success in a district that President Donald Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points is yielding notable new campaign tactics across the country as Democratic candidates and their allies work to recreate his results in red-tilted districts, four months before the midterm elections.
Indeed, his influence is being felt in political ads and fundraising appeals, in campaign strategy and on the trail.
“There is a lot of Lamb learning that went on after the special and continues to go on,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist and a former top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The biggest takeaway was that Democrats can compete for voters who supported President Trump, and don’t have to cede those voters to Republicans, which has led to more candidates willing to step forward, and more interest in investing in an expanded battlefield.”
In practice, that has meant more Democratic strategists invoking Lamb to explain why they see other pro-Trump districts coming online, and more fundraising missives that mention Lamb by name. It has meant increasingly widespread use of voter engagement technology employed in the Lamb race.
And most significantly, it has meant an emboldened new class of Democratic candidates—many of whom, like Lamb, have law enforcement or military backgrounds or both—who are increasingly comfortable proactively breaking with their national party leadership as they contest GOP-leaning districts that will help decide control of the House, openly channeling Lamb in the process.
Consider Danny O’Connor, a Democratic special election candidate running in a longtime Republican seat in the suburban Columbus, Ohio area. O’Connor, who has texted with Lamb, has both referenced Lamb directly and embraced a Lamb-style rebuke of Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader who is toxic among Republicans voters.
“Republicans are already on the attack. They’re afraid that like Conor Lamb, this special election in #OH12 will be a part of the Blue Wave!” O’Connor tweeted in May. “Help fight back by being one of 100 new supporters today!”
Then, there was the ad, which echoed Lamb’s blunt spot highlighting his opposition to Pelosi.
“Paul Ryan’s not doing anything for working families, but we need new leadership on the Democratic side of things, too,” O’Connor says, as a headline from POLITICO emerges onscreen: “O’Connor ‘won’t support Pelosi,’” it reads, with the Pelosi section highlighted in yellow.
Clarke Tucker, a Democrat running against GOP Rep. French Hill in Arkansas, has aired an ad with a similar message.
In an interview ahead of his August contest, O’Connor stressed that he is focused on his own race and seeks advice from people in his district. But, pressed on the parallels he sees between his race and Lamb’s, he replied: “This aspect of a new generation of leadership is something that is really connecting with voters. We saw that across the border in Pennsylvania, we’re seeing it here.”
It’s not only candidates who are, explicitly or implicitly, embracing Lamb. Individuals and organizations involved in his race bring up Lamb’s success as they now make pitches for other candidates.
“In the Pennsylvania 18 special election in March, [End Citizens United] was the first national group to endorse Conor Lamb, and worked with his campaign to build a grassroots network of small-dollar donors and volunteers,” read an announcement from that organization as it endorsed O’Connor.
“Our grassroots support can swing this race, just like it did for Conor Lamb,” read a fundraising email for O’Connor from the political team of Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.
“A lot of people, for a long period of time, didn’t think Conor Lamb could win,” Ryan said in an interview. “A lot of us were saying, no, he can win.”
“We want people to know, this is the recipe for success,” he continued. “It worked for Conor Lamb, it’s got a good chance for it to work with Danny O’Connor.”
Lamb wouldn’t comment for this story, but he has spoken or texted with a number of other Democratic candidates running in districts Trump won, including Brendan Kelly in southern Illinois and Dan McCready in a Charlotte-area district, the campaigns involved confirmed.
“He talks about that, in this election, of going places that people might have thought wouldn’t be where you’re focusing your time, can’t get votes there—but if you just have a conversation with someone, you’d be surprised by the kinds of things you can find common ground about,” said a Lamb campaign source who wouldn’t share those details on the record.
A number of the candidates with whom Lamb has spoken are, like him, veterans, and he recently penned a fundraising appeal on behalf of Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot and Democratic congressional candidate in a competitive Kentucky race. The two are doing joint fundraising together.
“Conor Lamb and Amy McGrath—two Marine veterans—are joining forces to defeat Paul Ryan’s allies, Andy Barr and Keith Rothfus,” read the message.
After Lamb’s race, the DCCC quietly conducted focus groups in Pennsylvania’s Washington and Allegheny counties, focusing on Trump-Lamb voters, and found that Lamb’s background in the military—and his status as a former federal prosecutor—helped him cut a more independent profile that opened doors with voters, according to a DCCC source.
Democrats took that as an encouraging development.
While the progressive base is energized, as evidenced by a primary in New York last month in which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a democratic socialist, knocked off a longtime incumbent, there are also many centrist Democratic veterans running in general elections who need to win over independent and even moderate Republican voters this fall.
“In this politically polarized climate where people don’t trust political institutions at all, one of the best backgrounds to run from is that of a veteran,” Ferguson said. “If people are looking for the antidote to what we’re seeing in Washington, veterans running as Democrats may be the closest medicine.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, who is involved in boosting Democratic veteran candidates and has pushed for new Democratic House leadership, said Lamb “followed a recipe for winning that other Democrats are paying attention to” that included being “willing to put people before personal or party politics.
“You saw that in his willingness to stand up to our party leadership in Washington,” he said.
But Republicans hotly dispute the idea that other Democratic candidates can replicate Lamb’s success. He was an uncommonly good candidate, they argue, who didn’t have to contend with a serious primary challenge, allowing him to focus entirely on the middle of the electorate, in contrast to some Democratic contenders who must be more mindful of their left flank.
Republicans also say these Democrats would back Pelosi’s agenda even if they oppose her for House Speaker, should Democrats regain the majority—and they are betting that the specter of Pelosi in charge will scare most Republicans back into line.
“Anytime there’s a choice between a Republican or a conservative Republican policy versus Pelosi and policies she supports, these Democrats will side with Pelosi every single time,” said Jesse Hunt, press secretary at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But perhaps the biggest impact of the Lamb victory, Democratic strategists say, is that it injected a dose of confidence into the campaigns of other Democrats running in red districts, especially those who share some resume details with Lamb. In their eyes, his race showed that it is possible to run as a more independent-minded candidate despite GOP efforts to tether them to the national Democratic Party.
“It doesn’t hurt that he was in the military, a prosecutor, and a little Irish too,” said Kelly, a Navy veteran and state’s attorney who also opposes Pelosi for Speaker. “Because after he won, some people were saying, ‘This is the next Conor Lamb,’ I jokingly say I’m the fatter, older Conor Lamb. But that’s me, and I’m totally fine with that.”
Asked what he has learned from watching Lamb, with whom he has met in Washington, Kelly replied, “He was himself. And I prefer to just engage with people and talk, and maybe that’s not going to be perfect all the time, but just be yourself.”