Conor Lamb won by appealing to working Americans

Last night Conor Lamb, a political unknown not too long ago, beat a well-established Republican for a congressional seat in an overwhelmingly Republican Pennsylvania district that Donald Trump won by over 20 points in 2016. 

No doubt inspired by Trump’s 2016 margin, Lamb’s opponent went out of his way to embrace Trump, inviting him, his son, his daughter and other Trump surrogates to the district during the campaign and saying on the stump that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” Given how poorly that worked, Trump backlash obviously played a part. 

It did not play the primary part, however. Lamb went out of his way to avoid talking about Trump for most of the cycle. He localized the race at every turn and steadfastly focused his campaign on pocketbook issues affecting workers and working people. He espoused a pro-labor message that resonated with the blue collar district. Last night, in his victory speech, he reemphasized unions and work and the role labor should continue to have in the political sphere. It was a message tailor made to appeal to the working class. 

As I wrote in my five-part series last fall, this is what a Democratic candidate must do to win districts like PA-18 and my district, OH-12. Rather than track to the center in an effort to co-opt conservative economic positions, he or she must track to the left and make an appeal to working men and women, talking about the issues that affect them and promising to make their lot better.

This is the smart play because political polarization is much more complicated than it is usually portrayed.  Many of the very same people who may respond to socially conservative or reactionary messages will respond to surprisingly liberal economic messages. The widespread applicability of such an approach is debatable — Lamb holds positions on guns and military policy, among others, that will not play in Petaluma or Park Slope — but as it’s often said, all politics are local, and I am convinced that such an approach is the best bet for Democrats in traditionally conservative districts with a large working class population. It’s certainly the tack Conor Lamb took. 

That message is not a difficult one to articulate. As I wrote back in November, a candidate wishing to win a district like this one need only state some simple, relatable truths to which a majority of voters will always respond positively. Truths which focus on four broad issues and their underlying values, from which all substantive policy positions should flow: 

Putting America to Work  

The Dow Jones may climb and the unemployment numbers may be low, but working people know that the system is rigged, with productivity going up but people earning less and retirement becoming a fading dream for far too many. As real wages for real work are stagnant or declining, the benefits of our economy are being gobbled up by a smaller and smaller number of people who grow richer and richer by the day. It’s unsustainable. It’s unfair. It’s bad for America. 

We must make our economy work for everyone, not just for the rich. We should raise the minimum wage. We must ensure that workers are given sick leave, family leave and medical leave. We must prevent companies from misclassifying employees to rob them of benefits and protections they deserve. We must provide protections for workers whose livelihoods are threatened by outsourcing, deindustrialization and automation and, if such protections prove inefficient, we must help retrain workers for in-demand occupations, especially occupations in emerging industries in the advanced energy sector. We must create disincentives for businesses to eliminate jobs and incentivize them to put workers first.  

America has always been at its best when the lives of its workers have been at their best. Making workers’ lives better should be our top priority. 

Rebuilding America

Years of tax cuts, service cuts and neglect have led to a degradation of our highways, railways, airports, bridges, tunnels, waterworks, sewers, the energy grid, our schools and our hospitals. The very bones of America are cracking and calcifying and they require a heavy investment in order to bring them back to strength.

An infrastructure plan — a real infrastructure plan that puts Americans to work, not some scam designed to put money in the pockets of developers, banks and middlemen — is badly needed.  Infrastructure projects should be dictated by need, not by their ability to turn a profit. They should support good jobs that provide fair wages and benefits while discouraging anti-labor practices. They should likewise be sustainable, acknowledging that once you build something you must likewise maintain it and that you must train and retain workers to do so.

Infrastructure should be understood as an investment, not a one-time expense. It is, quite literally, the foundation upon which America is built. 

Keeping America Healthy 

America is the only major country on Earth that allows health insurance executives, pharmaceutical companies and their stockholders to get rich while tens of millions of people suffer because they can’t get basic health care. This is obscene and immoral. Every man, woman and child in our country should be able to access the health care they need when they need it, regardless of their income.  

This is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Every moment an American is worrying about the health of their family is a moment not spent making their lives and the lives of their families better. Every dollar spent on medical costs is a dollar not being spent on something else. Even those with health insurance already are paying costs beyond their premiums in terms of limited opportunities and the inability to change careers, start businesses or stay home to take care of their families because they fear losing employer-based coverage. Guaranteed health care for all Americans would eliminate a tremendous obstacle to their productivity, their innovation and their happiness. 

By making health care a for-profit product available only to those with the ability to pay, we are in a self-inflicted health care crisis in this country. The only solution to it is the establishment of a single-payer national health care program. America should have done this decades ago. We can and should do it now. 

Putting People Before Wall Street

Banks and corporations think that they run this country. They think it because our leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, have let them think it by taking their campaign funds and working hard to protect their interests at the expense of the American people. That they’d ever do this is unacceptable. That they doubled and tripled down on it after Wall Street and big business wrecked the world economy and caused the Great Recession from which many people are still trying to recover, is unconscionable. 

In everything we do as a country, we must remember that we are a nation of people, not a nation of banks and corporations. Any policy we pursue, be it related to jobs, infrastructure, health care, taxes, the environment, trade, defense and everything else, should serve the interests of the people, not Wall Street. Ordinary Americans, not the wealthy. People who work, not people who get rich off the work of others. 

Candidates who want to win tough districts like PA-18 and OH-12 will not merely run against Donald Trump, they will run for something. They will not follow the old, misguided conventional wisdom about “claiming the center. They will not shy away from policies that are economically liberal. They will, in fact, advance a populist economic agenda for which voters hunger. Finally, They will hammer home the themes and positions I mentioned above, over and over again.

Conor Lamb showed last night that this theoretical framework I talked about last year can work. Now it’s time for other candidates to pick up that ball and run with it. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.