Who Really Won PA 18?

Grassroots women and organized labor pulled voters together in support of Conor Lamb. Conversations made it work.

By Lara Putnam

Tagged Democratsgrassroots activismLaborpoliticsprogressivism

The people who actually powered Conor Lamb’s nail-biter victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district are scratching their heads over the “Republican lite” narrative some pundits have put forward to explain this Democratic pickup in a district Donald Trump carried by 20 points. This facile take (which we’ve heard from the left and right alike) is a flat misreading that ignores the key actors on the ground and the kind of work that they—we—actually did.

Lamb’s campaign was powered by two core Democratic constituencies routinely portrayed as irreconcilable: college-educated suburban progressives and traditional blue-collar labor. They were not reconciled by a “magic” message that somehow brought out the inner Republican in all.  From the perspective of those in the trenches (and I was there alongside many others who did much more), it was not the message or the messenger that made PA 18 different in 2018 from the past. It was the organizations and conversations that surrounded them.

The movement to “flip the 18th” was well underway before Conor Lamb ever started running, but it proved to have ample room for him. In Lamb, to his credit, grassroots and labor alike found a committed and generous partner who was both savvy and civic-minded enough to know that opening doors to their energies was crucial.

Grassroots democracy groups of the kind that popped up across America’s red and purple suburbs in the wake of Donald Trump’s election had been mobilizing in the Pittsburgh suburbs since the start of 2017, seeking a challenger to Republican incumbent Tim Murphy, who had run unopposed in 2014 and 2016. These groups, often growing out of friendships forged in the Women’s March and honed over the subsequent long summer of protests in support of the ACA, were thickest on the ground in PA 18’s affluent Allegheny County suburbs, which had been trending more liberal for years. Yet even deep red Westmoreland County saw the flourishing of “Voice of Westmoreland,” a grassroots group founded by three angry and inspired women in response to the same national events. And in PA 18’s center-west, the new independent Washington County Democrats club powered up along that same timeline. Grassroots women were organizing for action.

When Tim Murphy’s congressional seat unexpectedly opened up, organized labor stepped in as well. Heralding Lamb’s strong support for organizing rights, pensions, and jobs, the Steelworkers, United Mine Workers of America, Service Employees International Union, and local Labor Councils reached out to union households across the district’s steel and coal belts.

In the abstract, the policy priorities of suburban moms and mineworkers might seem difficult to square. But politics do not happen in the abstract. Politics happen in carpools and smoke breaks and endless planning sessions. People make their choices about who to support and how much effort to give within a web of personal ties. In PA 18, those personal relationships mobilized again and again, as outside Republican groups, spending over $10 million dollars over the course of the campaign, sought to use gun control, fracking, and abortion as wedge issues to alienate the women in the suburbs or blue-collar men outside them and dampen support for the campaign. Time after time, conversations with friends reeled people back when polarization loomed. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, Lamb sat down with local Moms Demand Action members and anguished grassroots leaders. Over the following days reassurances travelled from mouth to mouth, as Lamb’s grassroots stalwarts worked through the nuance of Lamb’s position, and reminded each other how much worse Saccone, with his NRA A+ rating, would be. Even last minute stealth mailers by national Republicans and the NRA did not shake that resolve.

Meanwhile, those of us canvassing in Washington County and Greene County heard echoes of a separate set of conversations—likewise carried along pre-existing personal ties—among union members, as they reassured each other that this time, this Democrat shared the values that mattered most. “Me and the guys down at the shop were just talking about him!” “I walk with the Silver Sneakers every week, there are other veterans there too. We’re pretty impressed with that young Marine.” “A group of us retirees from the plant get together every week: One in leadership was talking about Lamb and pensions.” “We’ll spread the news down at the Fish Fry.”

Conor Lamb outperformed Hillary Clinton by about 19 percentage points in Allegheny County, Westmoreland County, and Washington County, and by about 26 in Greene County. The coalition that made that happen fused pieces of the old and pieces of the new, and was neither automatic nor magic.

“Enthusiasm” doesn’t get absentee ballot request forms into the hands of potential voters three weeks before an off-season election. Organization does. “Moderation” doesn’t ensure suburban moms and retired mineworkers will discover the common ground they share. Conversations do.  A “Republican lite” victory would not imply a tidal shift in what’s politically possible across our country. But organizations and conversations like these? They just might.

Read more about Democratsgrassroots activismLaborpoliticsprogressivism

Lara Putnam is Professor and Chair in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is active in grassroots political organizing in southwest Pennsylvania.

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